Delta and United are really sucking right now.
Delta and United are really sucking right now. Joe Raedle / Getty

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I thought I had it bad after a horrific—and ongoing—experience with Delta trying to get back to Seattle from visiting family in North Carolina last week. But a video emerged this morning of a travel nightmare that put my own into perspective. It shows a passenger on United Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville being forcibly removed from his seat and dragged down the aisle and off the plane.


What did this man do to deserve such treatment? According to passengers on board, the man—a doctor trying to get home to treat his patients—refused to deplane after United overbooked his flight and randomly selected him to take a later flight. After the man refused, United called security, who decided to get the man off the plane the hard way.

This is what United had to say about the incident:

Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate.

We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.

While this is clearly a PR disaster for United (which is fresh off making headlines for barring two teen girls from boarding a flight because they were wearing leggings and not in compliance with its dress code policy for "company benefit travel"), it’s the best possible outcome for Delta, which has been dealing with a massive clusterfuck of its own. Delta’s troubles started last Wednesday, when a storm in Atlanta, Delta’s hub, grounded air travel for several hours.

One might assume that airlines would be accustomed to dealing with inclement weather, but five days later, Delta is still canceling flights.

My own flight back to Seattle last Wednesday was one of those. After arriving at the Greenville/Spartanburg Airport—a two-hour drive from my parents’ house in North Carolina—I discovered my flight was delayed for five hours, and then it was canceled entirely. The next flight to Seattle, Delta advised, was two days later, and, no, they would not be giving out hotel vouchers.

First I begged, then I yelled, then I cried, and then I booked a last-minute, one-way flight on United leaving early the next morning. You can imagine the cost.

Since the storm had grounded so many flights, all of the nearby hotels were booked, so I took a $25 cab ride to the nearest one I could find, a Red Roof Inn that smelled like decades-old cigarette smoke and had no hot water. At 4 the next morning, after sleeping for less than three hours, I took another $25 cab ride back to the airport, boarded my plane, and was about to fall asleep when the pilot came on and gave us the news: An air traffic control problem in Chicago meant that our flight—the one we were currently sitting on—was now canceled. After futilely attempting to rebook, I gave up and called my mom, who drove two hours to the airport to collect her very frustrated daughter.

That was five days ago. I’m still not home and my parents have since formed a two-guitar band that plays “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” every night. Repeatedly.

The #Deltameltdown, as Twitter has coined this debacle, continues. On Sunday, the airline canceled an additional 130 flights, bringing the total number from last Wednesday’s storm to well over 3,000 cancellations. The airline, of course, continues to blame the weather, which is odd considering the blue skies all over the South. But by blaming weather, Delta doesn’t have to compensate their victims. And there are a lot of victims, many with stories far worse than mine. I have one friend who nearly missed her sister’s funeral and had to drive 12 hours to make it on time. Another took an Uber from Cleveland to Detroit. Today, people are still stranded at airports, either paying hundreds—if not thousands—of dollars to book last-minute flights and hotels, or sleeping in terminals and bathing in airport sinks. But, hey, at least Delta didn’t drag anyone off a plane. Yet.

Involuntary removals like United’s are rare. In 2016, the 12 largest U.S. airlines boarded an average of 1.8 million passengers a day and less than one percent were involuntarily bumped, according to airline consultant ICF. But for those who are, it’s still inconvenient, if not traumatic.

The problem, in part, is overbooking, says Captain Ross Aimer, a retired United pilot and CEO of Aero Consulting Experts. “They've become greedy,” Aimer says. “They don't want to leave one empty seat. And then when things go wrong, they get into trouble.”

Sometimes, overbooking can work to the customer’s advantage—one woman managed to get Delta to pay her and her family $11,000 not to fly to Florida last week—but overbooking is increasingly leading to serious logistical nightmares. “In the old days, these things only happened at Christmas or Thanksgiving,” says Aimer. “Now it's almost an everyday occurrence because no matter where you go, airports are full, airplanes are full, everyone is flying. When something like bad weather occurs, you have tenfold the backlash because so many people are stranded and so many aircraft and crews are out of place.”

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But greedy airlines aren’t the only problem: There’s also a lack of infrastructure. In the past 25 years, Aimer says, only one major airport has been constructed in the U.S. while the number of flights has grown exponentially. “There's a saying in our business,” he comments: "'Too many airplanes and not enough concrete.'”

Outdated air traffic control systems have compounded the issue, as has airline consolidation. In the past decade, the nine largest airlines have merged into just four, and while less competition may have been good for their bottom lines—airlines brought in a record $25.6 billion in profits last year, a 241 percent increase over 2014—for customers stranded in airports or dragged off flights, clearly, something has gone very wrong.

As for me, I’ve got a flight booked for Wednesday—a full week after I should have arrived. But if today’s incident from United is any indication, I may be better off starting the long walk home.

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