America's Culture of Entitlement

By Lynn Wardle | April 18, 2017 | 11:00am EDT
United Airlines passenger David Dao on a United flight repeatedly saying, "I have to go home." (Screenshot)

Where to begin?  So many things went wrong in the recent incident in which a passenger was dragged off a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Louisville! One wonders where to start.

As reported pervasively in the media and all over the internet, United had “overbooked” the flight.  So they had more passengers wanting to fly than seats on the airplane.  They also had crew members of another flight that needed to get to Louisville, presumably so that another plane-load of passengers could get to their destination.  So four passengers already on the plane were asked to give up their seats.

No one likes to miss a flight and have to take a later flight.  Yet most Americans deal with such frustrations and disappointments with a reasonable mixture of grace and grumbling, without going ballistic and throwing a huge tantrum. 

Airline personnel asked four people to give up their seats.  Sadly, one of the four passengers that United employees asked to take a later flight refused to give up his seat.  When the airline and airport police tried to remove him, he threw a terrific tantrum, screaming, refusing to leave, and was dragged down the aisle and off the plane (as shown all over the web).  His behavior seemed to be deliberately intended to maximize the stress and trauma for everyone – including not just the United employees and airport police but also all of the other passengers on the plane. 

He succeeded in doing that.  Somehow he got back on the plane and had to be removed a second time. 

Apparently that passenger claimed to be a doctor who had patients to see the next day.  Certainly that is a relevant consideration.  But is it really dispositive?  Are doctors really so much more (that much more) important than other passengers? 

Are doctors somehow morally superior to other passengers who are teachers, students, public employees, and business men and women who are working hard to provide for their families?  Are they more important than moms and dads who are trying to get back to their families, to help their children get off to school the next morning?

The passenger was described as a 69-year-old man.  Perhaps his age had something to do with his behavior.  Older people sometimes can be grumpy and difficult. (I say that sheepishly as an older person myself.) 

Perhaps the practice of “overbooking” needs to be reconsidered.  All flyers understand the fact that economic factors create a need for overbooking.  All of us who buy airline tickets appreciate airline policies that help to keep ticket prices low.  But perhaps the overbooking formulas could be fine-tuned a bit.   

Perhaps another airline had another flight that could have been used.   Sometimes, in order to save money, airlines insist on using their own flights only.  There are situations in which exceptions would make sense.

Perhaps additional incentives (including more cash) to get another passenger to give up his or her seat would have been appropriate.  Perhaps after the passengers are seated and the plane is full more substantial, enticing incentives might be appropriate.   

Perhaps timing was critical.   After all, the passengers already were seated.  Psychologically it may be harder for passengers to give up their seat after they are seated on the plane than it would have been before they boarded. 

So there are many things that United might have done to avoid or defuse the situation besides dragging the uncooperative passenger off the plane.  Even if the objecting passenger’s behavior was questionable, we all must deal with difficult people. 

Perhaps other factors contributed to his disturbing behavior.  The incident exemplified what could be called a “culture of entitlement.”  While it can be found in many (probably all) nations and cultures, it seems to be in abundant supply in the United States today. 

It is a “pound-your-fist-on-the-table-and-stand-on-your-rights” mentality.  It says: “I paid for this service so I am entitled to have it without any disruptions or inconveniences.” 

Sadly, this incident contributes to a public perception that doctors consider themselves to be better than other people.  It fosters the perception that doctors are arrogant, superior, and think that they are above the common inconveniences of life that other people have to experience from time to time. 

However, it also could be argued that the United employees and the airport police displayed a “culture of entitlement” in the way they dealt with the situation.  Certainly, the passengers should have respected those hard-working officials and complied with their directions.  But were there no other options? 

Was it not possible to avoid having the situation escalate to the point of dragging an old man down the aisle and off the plane?  Could he not have negotiated a more satisfactory remedy?  If they had truly respected him and the other passengers, might there not have been some other solution? 

One thing is clear:  The culture of entitlement is parasitic and self-destructive.  No persons, society or nation can long survive (let alone thrive) when a sense of entitlement is pervasive.  The sense of entitlement breeds arrogance, conceit, pride, and fosters social hierarchy.  Those qualities weaken and destroy nations. So the latest United Airlines incident has ramification for our entire society.

Lynn D. Wardle is the Bruce C. Hafen Professor of Law at Brigham Young University.  He is author or editor of numerous books and law review articles mostly about family, biomedical ethics and conflict of laws policy issues. His publications present only his personal (not institutional) views.


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