1280px-United_Airlines_Boeing_767-322EREarlier this week, the world reacted with outrage to a viral video of a United Airlines passenger, David Dao, being forcibly removed from his flight, after paying for a ticket and boarding the plane. For many of us, the video confirmed all of our worst suspicions about United. For me, it brought back a scary memory from several years ago, when a United flight attendant charged at me, and threatened my wife and me with forcible removal from the plane. I had inadvertently angered her during the boarding process, by asking her to help me find a place in the overhead compartment for my carry-on bag. So, yes, I’ll admit that my first reaction upon reading this week’s news was, “United has had this coming for a long time.”

Then, predictably, the backlash to the backlash began. People pointed out that the airline has the right to ask you to leave their plane, and if you refuse, they have the right to remove you, or to “re-accommodate” you, in the words of United CEO Oscar Munoz. Airlines are allowed to use force if you resist their authority – in other words, if you refuse to take their money and leave the plane, they have a contractual right to violently re-accommodate you. Yes, in fact, they can legally drag your bloody carcass away if you get too far out line, or if they run out of room. You agreed to all of this, by the way, when you bought your ticket; it’s right there in the fine print you didn’t read. Their plane, their rules. So, my second reaction was, “Yeah, the guy should’ve just obeyed if he wanted to stay injury-free.” (Of course, one could argue that this is similar to saying that you should always obey Vito Corleone’s instructions if you’d rather not find a horse’s head on your pillow, but that’s a whole other discussion).

Most of the online discussion, though, has only danced around the question of why we found all of this so outrageous, without actually answering the question. Let’s be honest: Even people who are defending the airline seem to acknowledge that “mistakes were made,” even if they can’t pinpoint what they are. Everybody recognizes that dragging a bleeding customer through coach is not the best possible conflict resolution strategy. It isn’t exactly “win-win.” Nonetheless, it wasn’t illegal, either.

What is really bothering us about this incident, then? If United was within their rights, then why are we concerned? Well, I think there is a distinctly theological answer to those questions, one that won’t surprise you if you’ve read some of my other posts. 

Major airlines generally have two primary goals that define their effectiveness (and profitability): efficiency and safety. 

The goal of efficiency is, of course, driven by profit. A more efficient airline is a more profitable one, so the goal is to seat the maximum number of passengers possible, at the most optimum price, and move them through the whole process as quickly as possible. Efficiency determines how many seats they cram onto the plane, the price of tickets, the boarding procedures, staff salaries, and many other decisions. For the consumer, of course, efficiency results primarily in timeliness. Everybody wants to get to their destination on time.

However, efficiency has to be balanced by safety, right? You can’t put too many people on the airplane. You cannot allow people to board who might be a threat to the other passengers, nor let people bring dangerous items onto the plane, nor permit people to wander freely through the cabin while the plane is taking off. For the consumer, safety is paramount. Most of us believe that safety is more important than efficiency, right? We want to make sure we arrive in one piece, even more than we want to arrive on time. So if it takes awhile to remove a violent passenger, we’re all for that.

Now, in order to ensure efficiency and safety, airlines make a lot of rules, and they empower their staff to enforce those rules. Again, there are reasons why you can’t bring knives and guns onto airplanes. There are reasons why you have to stay put while the seatbelt light is on. There are even good reasons why, when asked to leave a plane, you have to leave. The crew is responsible for everybody’s safety, and they want everybody to get to their destinations on time. So they make rules to make sure those good things happen.

However, efficiency and safety are good goals, and necessary goals, but they are insufficient by themselves. The problem is that humans also want the airline to have a third major goal: Dignity. We want to be treated with dignity. What we saw on the video of United 3411 was a clash between the human goal to be treated with dignity, and the corporate goals of efficiency and safety. The corporate goal of efficiency sometimes means that our individual dignity is forgotten – we only have value in the aggregate. In other words, one person doesn’t really matter, as long as there are hundreds of other people on the plane who have paid their fares. In addition, the goal of safety often means that fear colors many corporate decisions; airlines treat people roughly, because they feel that anybody could be a threat. Any sass, any talking back, any minor violation of the rules, and you’re treated with deep suspicion, or outright hostility.

So people were angry at Mr. Dao’s treatment, even though the fine print on his ticket says that the airline has the right to treat him that way. Yes, we say, he shouldn’t have disobeyed orders, but didn’t the airline put him in this situation to begin with? Something seems cruel about taking a man’s money, letting him get on an airplane, only to drag him away after he refused to take your financial incentive to leave. While the corporation is allowed to do this, most people wonder if they should be allowed to do it. United has the legal and contractual right to strip us of our dignity, but that doesn’t mean people think that’s acceptable.

As I’ve said before, only human beings have this need to be treated with honor and dignity. If the plane was filled with sheep and cattle, it still wouldn’t be appropriate to drag them along the floor or beat them with sticks, of course; but nobody would really object if you put a cow on a plane and then had to remove him due to space concerns. Nobody would really mind, in fact, if you put a leash on the cow and physically pulled the animal from the aircraft, as long as you didn’t hurt it. Human beings won’t stand for that type of treatment, though. It’s beneath our dignity.

Most of us, especially since 9/11, have found ourselves feeling like we are little better than cows and sheep when we travel by air. Most of us have not been beaten up or dragged around, but we have been yelled at, rushed (and then told we’d have to wait anyway), shoved, stuck on the tarmac, told we were not allowed to relieve our bladders for hours at a time, and even verbally threatened. Passengers are not treated as individuals with dignity; we are treated as groups of potentially inefficient and dangerous revenue sources. So the video we saw this week made us think, “Sure, that exact thing hasn’t happened to me, but it could, and I have been treated as less than human at times, as well.”

This need to be treated with dignity stems from our awareness, however hidden and unrealized, that we are made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). God made us for glory and honor (Psalm 8:5-8). We believe we have an inherent worth and dignity, and that others ought to respect that. That belief comes from God Himself. The video we saw outraged us, because it was outrageous: People should not be treated like cows and sheep. The outrage began before the video was rolling, with a series of minor indignities, that culminated in a major one. That, I think, is why we felt the way we did; the video reflected a broader pattern that we have already observed. When people are consistently treated as less than human, there will eventually be a tipping point, even if the facts connected to that tipping point raise questions. Our society will insist that God’s image is honored, even if we don’t recognize what we’re insisting upon.

The bad news here is that large corporate airlines will, most likely, continue to operate by the principles of profit: efficiency and safety at all costs. I would not expect anything more than small changes in the way United does business, and maybe temporary ones at that.

The good news, though, is that God does not see us like corporations do. God doesn’t see us as masses to be managed; he sees us as children, whom He loves. God doesn’t see us as threats to be neutralized; He sees us as sinners who need to redeemed. As a result, He acts toward us with compassion, grace, and dignity, at all times. And we are not paying customers in God’s kingdom, either; we are recipients of His grace, provided through Christ’s death and resurrection. We’re all free riders, but He crowns us with glory and honor anyway.

Good news, indeed.