It was just before I hopped into the car for a two-hour drive to the airport for our return flight that I found out United was having a very bad day. I didn't see much more than a few memes, and it wasn't until I was sitting outside the gate to my own United flight that I finally saw the video of what had happened to David Dao, while listening to the passengers around me who were sharing their own reactions to the video. I knew our flight to the mainland was going to be packed, just as much as the one Dao was on, but I figured the pitchforks and torches coming for the company probably meant that the people working this plane were going to be, if not nice, at least on their very best behavior.
We'd been on the plane less than two minutes when my wife discovered the orange juice pooled in the bottom of the seatback pocket in front of her. More accurately, I suppose, her iPad discovered the spilled juice, but on the bright side, the only real casualty of the experience was the shirt I used to clean the iPad off. We let the flight attendant know we were flying on a dirty airplane, and although the juice was never cleaned up, at least she shoved some paper towels into the pocket so they wouldn't get on anyone else's small personal electronic devices. She at least sounded bummed that the people who had cleaned the plane missed that particular spot.
During our layover at LAX, it started to sink in just how bad things were going for the company. You couldn't miss the story on social media or TV, and although the memes were flowing in abundance, it felt like a story getting more than the average amount of Internet outrage. It was at that point I started to feel bad that the night before, before the story broke, I had paid a small chunk of change to upgrade our seats for the flight between LAX and IAH to first class.
Of course, I also spent the entire trip drinking Pepsi, so giving money to another brand making poor choices was strangely familiar to me.
One of the things I like about social media is that it gives us the ability to experience life together. From the Patriots Super Bowl comeback to the Academy Awards twist ending to my nights spent watching WWE events with wrestling Twitter, I've gotten to experience a feeling of togetherness I wouldn't otherwise get unless I invited people over to my house or went to a bar to watch something in the company of strangers. These shared offline experiences are relatively rare unless I'm at a sporting event, protest or disaster.
But everyone on that flight from Los Angeles to Houston knew what had happened to Dao, whether it be from social media, the TV or the in-flight video options beaming MSNBC and CNN straight to our seats on a United flight. And when the flight attendant said, maybe just a touch too loudly, that the lady responsible for us heading back to our gate instead of taking off for Houston didn't want to get off the plane, we all straightened up a bit. We started looking at each other's eyes, all of us thinking variations on the same theme: “Is this about to get bad?”
As far as I can piece together, a young lady got sick before we left the gate, throwing up in one of the airplane restrooms, then let the flight attendants know what had happened. About how she was also having stomach pains. The flight attendants decided maybe flying wasn't for this lady, so they told paramedics to meet at the gate so they could get her off the place.
The young lady wasn't really having that. She didn't want to get off the plane, and thought she could make it home just fine. Unfortunately for her, if you're the reason a plane is delayed because it's heading back to the gate, odds are you're not going to be able to say, “Oh, my bad,” and keep your seat. We all listened, maybe even leaning in just a bit, to the gate agent explain to the young lady what was happening. She didn't have a choice: She was getting off the plane when we got to the gate. It didn't sound like a threat, didn't sound like handcuffs would be involved, but that wasn't the point. We all knew what could happen, even if it was unlikely at that point.
After a minute or two, but what felt like much longer because of the situation with the video – still being shown on repeat as the morning news started on our TVs (if you weren't patiently waiting for Rogue One to start) – we got to the gate and, without much ceremony, the young lady got her stuff and exited the plane, presumably to puke somewhere safer.
In the end there was no violence, just a disappointed traveler getting off the plane and the rest of the passengers breathing a little more easily knowing that they weren't going to have to shoot their own viral videos. The flight took off about 40 minutes behind schedule, but at least we weren't dealing with blood or spilled orange juice. When it comes to flying in America these days, you learn to appreciate small things like that.
I have no idea if I'll ever fly United again. I imagine that on a long enough timeline, I will. After all, I did drink my weight in Pepsi last week. But I imagine most folks flying United this week, and for the near future, are going to have that video squarely in the front of their thoughts. And keeping their phones close by, just in case.