United, Sky Law and the World of Re-Accommodation

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United, Sky Law and the World of Re-Accommodation

Look, Liz, we have reasons for doing things the way that we do them. We say “half an hour” to control the herds of walking mozzarella sticks who think that three hundred dollars and a photo ID gives them the right to fly through the air like one of the guardian owls of legend! God, that’s been our in-flight movie for months.
— Carol Burnett (Matt Damon), 30 Rock

United Airlines hates you and loves Sky Law. The company violently dragged an elderly doctor, David Dao, off their plane the other day. A United flight out of Chicago was overbooked. The company asked passengers to leave the flight, so that employees could hop aboard. Avi Selk wrote:

An airline supervisor walked onto the plane and brusquely announced: “We have United employees that need to fly to Louisville tonight. … This flight’s not leaving until four people get off.” “That rubbed some people the wrong way,” Bridges said.

A couple left. Nobody else wanted to go. That’s when United called on the Chicago Police Department Aviation Office to come in—an organization known for its gentleness and decency. They hurt Dao and dragged him off the plane.

Paste’s Shane Ryan and Jacob Weindling have already discussed the horror that followed. The grim, fascist stupidity of it all, of bashing a doctor’s face on the seat-rest. We can guess how it all happened: somebody with a title started to pick out passengers. This man is pointed at, asked to move by some goon, refuses—and when authority is questioned, does what authority always does, double down, until you’re dragging a middle-aged man off a plane and people are screaming. In addition to being a human being, the passenger in question was an elderly man, a doctor with patients, and Asian-American—not a trifecta that will win United any fans in their long future march to bankruptcy.

Since then, there have been news stories rehashing salacious details of Dao’s past. Morgan Watkins, writing for the Louisville Courier-Journal, noted Dao had a criminal record.

Forget that the timing of this information suggests a smear campaign by United. Here’s why that doesn’t matter. Dao could be a literal drug dealer on his way to deliver to a client, and this wouldn’t change what United has done. Dao could be holding a bong on the plane and cursing a picture of Tim Tebow, and it still wouldn’t give this terrible company the right to brutalize and beat him. United’s in-house response, which stated the man was rowdy and disruptive, is exactly what authority did in the age before everyone had smartphones. They’re in trouble and they know it. As of this writing, United’s stock is down 3.7 percent. They’ll probably lose a billion dollars in the market today. Even Reason magazine came out against the corporation.

In his piece, Ryan linked to a long, excellent thread by Patrick Blanchfield.

Blanchfield’s point is that these structures are unquestioned and uninspected:

… terms like biopower and micro-fascism may be theory buzzwords, but they are 100%, unhyperbolically appropriate here. we queue up, willingly, to have our bodies scanned, touched & searched, we’re crammed into ever more contorted spaces—and we accept it all … but the fundamental “necessity” of the whole enterprise is given, its basic obscenity, unremarkable, largely unquestioned … normatively speaking, our years of acceptance of runaway security culture (and other trends) means that we’ve cosigned their doing it

To which another Twitter user @mikejolk responded, “It’s like a Stanley Milgram experiment on a giant scale,” referring to the sociological research on obedience to authority. Maybe you have a name for the unpleasantness of air travel. I call it Sky Law.


Blanchfield is right. We never ask if this is necessary—it isn’t; all of the TSA and our vaunted security theater is kabuki. On close inspection, like most impressive militaristic bullshit, is horribly bad at achieving its job. It seems efficient but it does nothing to add to our safety. Traveling by air is like being electrocuted in a flying cage: your suffering is slow, unending, but the view is great.

Why did this happen? And why have airplane incidents been on the rise? Why is Sky Law so terrible?

Business and politics have two unconscious drives. The first drive is to be safe (politics) and the second (business) is to make profit. Sometimes these work out in our favor: we can buy Diet Snapple and not get mugged. However, they’re also the dark side of every institutional decision made in this country.

These two urges don’t usually conflict, since order is on the side of good consumption in our society. When Starbucks are smashed during protests, the safety-craving and profit-desiring halves of the managerial brain are in accord: this must not happen. Pepsi releases a clueless ad smoothing over the police shootings and everybody gets a little nervous about being too much on the side of order; it might get in the way of selling.

The people who sell Pepsi understand that consumers come to brands because they want to be comforted. Dealing with the law and rules are a source of stress. Consuming reduces that stress, in exchange for capital. But stress is not the only source of suffering. Citizens also live in fear of being preyed upon, of terrorism and crime. The law reduces that fear, in exchange for obedience. Fear and stress, order and consumption. Each of us fall into these camps at various times. We obey the law or consume in proportion to our fear or stress. We are willing to be relieved of our capital and of our freedom to the extent we receive an equal amount of peace and satisfaction from the exchange. These oppressive systems exist in our world, but we are free from them at various times. Depending on where you live, who you know, and what you do, you may not be touched by them at all.


Airports and airplanes are unique because they are where the concern for profit and the concern for order are absolute. What is hidden becomes visible. The all-consuming need for profit is manifested in the lack of space, in the money required for little luxuries. It is there in the cancellations, in the overbooking, and the half-truths that airport clerks tell you. The all-consuming need for order is incarnated when you are taken aside and searched, when your belongings are seized, when you cannot move or relieve yourself or use your phone without the say-so of power.

September 11th concentrated police power under Bush, and the airlines consolidated their economic might under Obama. It was appropriate this recent outrage happened in the city of Chicago. The city’s mayor, noted political hack Rahm Emanuel, was a major player in the Obama Administration’s failure to regulate or discipline the airlines. Emanuel is a fan of both police unaccountability and corporate profits. According to Justin Elliott at ProPublica, “President Obama promised to fight corporate concentration. Eight years later, the airline industry is dominated by just four companies. And you’re paying for it.” Obama’s administration, which had promised to fight airline consolidation, approved mergers that gave giant corporations even more power. Elliott writes:

They used their pull in the administration, including at the White House, and with a high-level friend at the Justice Department, going over the heads of staff prosecutors. And just days after the suit was announced, the airlines turned to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first White House chief of staff, to help push back against the Justice Department.

The police and the corporations both have free reign inside the airport. Concentrations of power tend to use tyrannical means. Most of the time, we ignore these abuses. Economic and security power is primarily used against the poor and powerless. But at the airport, it is applied universally (although still disproportionately on the foreign-looking and the outsider). Everyone feels the sting. That’s how Sky Law works. Petty tyranny.

I am an able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgender college-educated upper-middle-class American WASP extrovert in my thirties. I speak Standard North American English. Appearance-wise, I summon no anxieties in the cop mind: I possess no tattoos, beard, piercings, or irreverent markings of any kind. In other words, I suffer very little from the oppressive systems of my country. When I moved to Atlanta, I replaced my Texas driver’s license with a Georgia one. Until my new ID arrived, I had to carry around a paper version. Traveling during the holidays, I was checkpointed at both airports: my license was not plastic. Both times I had a folder full of identity documents: my Social Security card, authorized birth certificate, the works. The first time—going to Texas—I had to wait for a long time. The second time—going back to Atlanta—I was physically searched by a security officer. During both instances, I did not suffer any kind of verbal harassment. Both security officials were professional and courteous. But even at this mild level, it was still intrusive and unnecessary. If it is this way for me—the kind of person the system is designed to unfairly privilege—imagine how bad it is for everyone else.


When you are in an airport, you are stripped of dignity in so many little ways, and when you are in an airplane, you are occasionally under armed guard, in an incredibly small space. Airports are little police states inside our country. No wonder the travel ban was applied at airports so easily: they were ready for them.

We have strange rationalizations we use about these intrusions. The air travel code under Sky Law says don’t complain, be reasonable, put up with strange hazing from heavily-subsidized airlines who do business in publicly-constructed buildings; endure insults that we wouldn’t take from Greyhound or from Amtrak. Almost everybody travels by plane, or will. The insult is spread around.

We know what our airlines and airports are, and we are all ashamed of them.

We were promised the sky was an ocean, but instead of thrilling voyages of big wonder, we have received brutish piracy, polo-shirted soft-talkers who will search you in places that you’d rather not talk about. One story after another dribbles through the collective media consciousness: this man yelled at the guard for feeling him up, this person scribbled robust curses on the Ziploc bag containing medicine, this man was taken off a plane for rude words. When something like this happens, we shake our heads: wouldn’t it be nice if it was changed, somehow?

In a few years, I predict, Sky Law will evolve into a disruptive new form of social control, beyond even this simple brutality. Dyspeptic middle-aged men upset about last night’s hockey game will be escorted out onto the tarmac, and a coin will be flipped to decide whether they live to fly to Reno or are publicly executed there—shot at close-range by handguns right there on the airstrip. “Nobody understands what pilots go through,” an aviator will mutter to his wife, before draining another bottle of Chivas in the trainyard. Punching will become normal and normal will become fairytale myth. Air travelers will become nowhere men—citizens of neverplace, belonging to no country, having no rights, while in the air. The world doesn’t have to be this way.

In this country, most of us must undergo this ritual humiliation. This can be altered. We can have our dignity back. Let us reclaim it.