During the Spring of 2017, the U.S. airline industry became the target of widespread public outrage. The unrest began at Chicago O’Hare on April 10th, when United Airlines attempted to remove Dr. David Dao from a flight to Louisville in order to make room for pilots headed to their next flight. When he refused to disembark, police violently dragged Dao from the aircraft, bloodying his face and knocking out his teeth. Passengers seated near Dao recorded the assault, and as the video went viral, scores of other travellers posted their own accounts of abuse at the hands of airline officials. By the end of the week, two decades of public discontent over smaller seats, less legroom, crowded terminals, food and beverage cutbacks, and invasive security checks boiled over. But despite calls for new legal protections for passengers, and regardless of a media environment so hostile that Delta cancelled its annual press relations day, airline policy reforms are not forthcoming. To initiate such changes, aggrieved travelers must build alliances with airline employees, whose unions have long played a key role in making air travel safer and more convenient, but who face ongoing setbacks amid three decades of fierce corporate mobilization against the labor movement.
The argument that organized labor has defended passenger interests may at first seem counterintuitive. Prior to the 1980s, the airline industry had been the site of militant union activism. Leftist Michael Quill’s Transport Workers Union, for example, took a combative approach on ground workers’ behalf at American and Pan Am, and Machinists’ union strongmen Guy Cook and Charlie Bryan drove a hard bargain that spawned long strikes at Northwest and Eastern. Although direct action tactics left individual passengers stranded in many cases, a strong labor movement benefitted passengers collectively because it provided a check on corporate power that forced airlines to be accountable to their stakeholders.