We live in a divided country, but there's one thing that brought together just about everyone in America right now--uniting them in disgust at United Airlines.

By now you've probably seen the ghastly videos. There is no sugarcoating this story, which is trending at the top of almost every social media network and new organization in the country.

United Airlines overbooked one of its flights from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky, on Sunday. After boarding, it decided its employees were more important than its paying customers.

So after none of the passengers volunteered to leave in favor of the employees (for as much as $800), the airline decided that a few passengers would be bumped and ordered off the plane to make room. One of the selected passengers, who said he was a doctor and needed to see patients in Louisville, didn't comply.

Words were exchanged. The airline called in the cops. Things were not pretty to begin with, and they quickly became ugly.

If the videos the man's horrified fellow passengers shot are accurate, he wound up with a bloody face, disoriented, and literally dragged down the center aisle of the plane by a plainclothes cop--all for wanting to fly on the plane he'd paid to fly on.

'A big trust thing'

We should stipulate that while this incident was horrible, it wasn't the most horrible thing to happen in the United States this week. For one thing, there was a shooting at a school on Monday that left three children dead.

But the violent, forced deplaning (excuse me, "re-accommodat[ion]," in the words of United's CEO Oscar Munoz) has gripped people's imaginations the way few other events do.

Is it the passenger's everyman quality? The fact that he was supposedly a doctor? His shrieks and the look of panic on his face when he was pulled off the plane and then apparently tried to reboard? Certainly it has to do with the fact that some passengers posted video within minutes of the actual event.

But it's also likely the fact that United, supposedly in its own defense, said that the man had simply been chosen randomly to be kicked off the plane and sought to blame the whole thing on him.

As passengers, we're in control of so little on a commercial aircraft. The idea that you can simply be selected at random, told to pack your bags, and literally dragged bloody down the aisle is disconcerting, to say the least.

"I thought once I was on the plane, it was my seat," Andrew D. Gilman, the CEO of crisis communication firm CommCore Consulting Group told The New York Times. "They unfortunately disrupted a number of certainties that people tend to rely upon, so I think it's a big trust thing."

Maybe they hope you'll forget

In the aftermath, one of the cops has been suspended and United is facing a potential congressional investigation. And while United's CEO Munoz issues tone-deaf statements, calling the passenger "disruptive and belligerent," the question is whether this might be one of the rare instances of customer outrage that actually sticks.

Not everyone is sure that it will, in a country that seems to have already maxed out its capacity for outrage.

"The thing about airlines is they have a low happiness level to begin with," Andy Swan, the founder of social media monitor LikeFolio, told CNBC in an interview on Monday. The airline might well be confident you'll forget all about this the next time you need to book a flight, and make your decision based purely on ticket price or on-time arrival record.

Time will tell. In the meantime, there's probably only one group of people happy with right now: Kendall Jenner and the folks at Pepsi. Almost everyone else in America is finally united.

Published on: Apr 11, 2017
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