Adverbs and United Airlines

flythefriendlyskiesYou might think nothing more remained to be said about United Airlines Flight 3411 from Chicago to St Louis on Sunday, April 9. Not so. The coverage left key facts of the case misreported, and the most interesting linguistic aspects completely unnoticed.

Sean Davis at The Federalist sensibly dug out United’s contract of carriage and read it. But even he failed to note how bad its use of English is.

The volitional subclass of adverbs used as act-related adjuncts are the adverbs like accidentally, deliberately, inadvertently, knowingly, purposely, reluctantly, unwittingly, and willingly (see The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, Pages 675–679). Crucially, involuntarily belongs to this class. The key thing about these words is that they modify the agent in a clause. Jack kissed Jill voluntarily asserts only that Jack had free will — not that Jill consented. This holds even for passives: The suspect was reluctantly released from jail by the police  attributes reluctance to the police, not the suspect.

With that in mind, take a look at part of Rule 25, Denied Boarding Compensation, subsection 1, in United’s contract of carriage:

If a Passenger is asked to volunteer, UA will not later deny boarding to that Passenger involuntarily unless that Passenger was informed at the time he was asked to volunteer that there was a possibility of being denied boarding involuntarily …

Since involuntarily modifies the agent, UA will not later deny boarding to that Passenger involuntarily  would naturally apply only to a weird sci-fi scenario where UA staff are in the grip of some drug or alien mind control that forces them to deny a passenger boarding rights even though they want her to be allowed onto the plane.

UA’s intent is not very clear, but the contract seems to be trying to say that if you are first asked to volunteer to get bumped, UA personnel have to tell you certain things at that point: They can’t bump you against your will for not volunteering without first having told you about the potential $1,000 compensation. Something like that. But under the ordinary semantics of English they haven’t said what they meant. And the mistaken use of involuntary is repeated twice more:

If there are not enough volunteers, other Passengers may be denied boarding involuntarily in accordance with UA’s boarding priority …

To deny boarding involuntarily would mean to deny it despite not wanting to. That’s how volitional act-related adjuncts work. And the same remark applies to the claim that children and passengers with disabilities “will be the last to be involuntarily denied boarding.”

All this tells us that United Airlines is run, and its contracts are drafted, by people who are not good at employing the English language to express things with care and accuracy. So perhaps we should not have been surprised when CEO Oscar Munoz said things like “We sought volunteers and then followed our involuntary denial of boarding process” when he meant “process for denying boarding to unwilling passengers.”

More linguistic sloppiness emerges as you learn about the case. The flight has repeatedly been called “oversold,” but there’s a definition for that in the contract, and Sean Davis looked it up:

Oversold Flight means a flight where there are more Passengers holding valid confirmed Tickets that check-in for the flight within the prescribed check-in time than there are available seats.

Flight 3411 was not oversold. It was sold out. No one holding a valid ticket was unable to get onto the plane and into a seat. There was a seat for every bottom, and every bottom was in its assigned seat.

And what does “boarding” mean? Boarding is the bit where you show your boarding pass and walk down the jetway and through the aircraft door onto the plane and find your seat and sit down in it. All the ticketed passengers had done that. Boarding had been successfully concluded. There was no possibility of denying it. What UA needed to do was to persuade already-boarded, paying passengers to undo their seatbelts and deplane.

Munoz’s hilarious euphemism “reaccommodate” deserves, of course, all the opprobrium that has been heaped upon it. But be fair: for his apology, Munoz needed a verb V such that to V  a person X  means “to haul X out of X’s seat, slam X’s head into an armrest hard enough to bloody X’s face, break two of X’s teeth, and give X a concussion, and then drag X  humiliatingly down the aisle and off the plane in front of shocked fellow passengers getting X’s clothing all pulled up so X’s midriff is exposed, and when X runs back on the plane drag X off again strapped to a gurney.” There isn’t any such verb. We never figured we would need one.

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