Was the Government Really Prepared to Kill Everyone Onboard the United Flight that Returned to DC After a Seat Reclining Incident?

Scott McCartney blogs about the incident Sunday night onboard United’s DC- Accra flight where the aircraft turned around after two passengers got into a fight over a reclined seat.

He notes “[w]ith seats squeezed together closely in coach cabins, reclining seats have become a major annoyance for many passengers” and flags etiquette issues.

I think there’s a more important point here. McCartney notes,

Two F-16s from Andrews Air Force Base were scrambled to shadow the flight until it landed safely.

Now, there is only one thing that the F-16s could have done in this situation. Either they do nothing, or they shoot down the plane. I’ve seen quite a bit of coverage over this incident, most of the coerage notes that fighter jets were scrambled to respond. But nobody points out that those fighter jets could only have been used to kill everybody onboard.

Doesn’t it bother anyone that our government’s first reaction, in this case to a slap after a reclined seat, is to prepare to kill everyone?

I realize that it’s possible to hypothesize a scenario where an airplane is going to again be used as a missle, and that the decision then is between killing everyone on board or on the ground. And that in fact airplanes were once used as missles ten years ago.

My point is that no one blinks that our immediate reaction now, in nearly every instance, is to put our finger on that trigger. What troubles me in this case in mostly that the news coverage treats that nonchalantly, rather than as a really big deal.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. They were there to observe eratic behavior of the aircraft to be sure the cockpit wasn’t compromised. Something the pilot said to ATC caused someone to believe the airplane could be subject to interference in the cockpit.

  2. They were there to observe eratic behavior of the aircraft to be sure the cockpit wasn’t compromised. Something the pilot said to ATC caused someone to believe the airplane could be subject to interference in the cockpit.

  3. I don’t think it’s as nefarious as it sounds. It’s not like the government has cessnas handy that it can scramble to see what is going on with a plane. They have fighters, so they scramble fighters which are piloted by people trained to come up close to a plane and check it out (and yes, engage if needed). For example, they scrambled fighters when Payne Stewarts jet was flying across the country without anyone flying it. They reported that the windows were frosted over indicating a loss of cabin pressure, and then the plane eventually ran out of gas and crashed… without the fighters intercepting they would not know what happened.

  4. So, they were there to do a quick once-over and make sure the cockpit was OK, and then if not, kill everyone. Much better. 🙂

  5. Just read more on this story. Without revealing details that are classified on what how this happened, I can say this was a UA pilot over-reaction, not a government over-reaction.

  6. It’s not really a finger on the trigger. It’s sending the cop to check out a burglar alarm. Yes, the cop happens to carry a sidearm, but he doesn’t expect to be firing it.

    The odds may be one in 100,000, but if the airplane really does become a missile, you want the F16’s to be on the scene, not 15 minutes away or on the ground. McCartney is completely wrong.

    The only logical argument against scrambling the F16’s is cost-effectiveness. Are 100,000 (or whatever you want to estimate) sorties cheaper than one successful attack? That’s debatable.

  7. Well, presumably, the fighter jets would only shoot down the plane if the cockpit had been compromised. In that case, there’s a strong likelihood that everyone onboard is doomed anyway, and, as in 9/11, a possibility that other people or buildings could be targets as well.

    Also, people seem to react differently when they are in their cars and see a policecar in the rearview mirror. So it might’ve had an effect on the fighting passengers to let them know that they were considerably out of bounds and actually in quite a bit of trouble.

  8. Probably wouldn’t be the first time. I know for fact this was at least an option on 9/11 for the PA plane headed to DC. As above comment noted everyone on board is assumed doomed in a terrorist attack anyway.

    And after a plane’s disintegrated it’s easy for the government to explain that the plane crashed because of the on board fight.

    Avoiding a successful terrorist attack is all that really matters.

  9. At some point I’m guessing pilots are going to be in the hot seat for overreacting to these events. No one was charged with anything but I’m guessing between the dumping of the fuel and redoing the flights for everyone had to cost many thousands of dollars.

    The seat reclining thing will eventually lead to no or limited recline in coach. Won’t make some people happy but having someone’s head essentially in your lap causes trouble for some, especially when combined with alcohol and frustration of flying.

    Unless an airline is over water trying to shoot one down will cause many other problems since it isn’t as if you can control where it will crash.

  10. The Pentagon’s reaction was overblown, but so is your ludicrously sensationalist headline.

  11. Even in death, ‘the Osama’ continues to cast a long shadow over our civil liberties. Many pilots overreact even to minor incidents (which don’t compromise the cockpit), and get F-16s to escort them. Incredible!

  12. SCL said,

    The Pentagon’s reaction was overblown, but so is your ludicrously sensationalist headline.


  13. Simple solution would have been to open the door, let the two passengers fight outside, and carry on to the destination.

  14. Two F-16’s to shoot down one unarmed airliner = Overkill!
    At least the USAF gets 2 sorties under its belt —
    Throw in a KC-135 Tanker to air refuel the fighters, and the sorties would climb to 3 —–

  15. Gary – Your title is worse than anything you may have thought the government did wrong

  16. Of course they were prepared to shoot down the plane, if necessary. And they have to be.

    What if the stupid seat reclining incident was just a distraction and no fighters were scrambled and the jet crashed into the Capitol building killing hundreds?

    You probably would have been one of the first to criticize that decision as well.

  17. 9/11 was an inside job. F-16’s scrambled to escort a United plane back ?? c’mon…those things are designed for one thing—to kill.

  18. These kind of stories, makes one NOT want to fly – though I very much enjoy traveling, I don’t enjoy hearing these types of situations.

  19. Not surprised by the government’s reaction one bit. This is the same govt that allowed 9-11 to happen in the first place by:

    1. Not investigating after being notified by the flight schools of extremely suspicious behavior by the hijackers.
    2. Allowing the hijackers to overstay their visas.
    3. Not fortifying cockpits even though they knew this was a security weakness.

    As usual, they cover up their own ineptitude by overreacting after the fact.

  20. WTF, is your spell-checker busted (notice those red squiggly lines under your poorly-spelt words)?

    Option 3: The military jets were there to observe and monitor.

  21. Look, there’s no secret, nor should there be that in addition to there observation roles, the fighters were there to pull the trigger if need be. However, there’s nothing wrong with that. You said it’s possible to hypothesize a scenario where a plane is used as a missile. It’s the DoD’s job to cover its bases, if they hadn’t scrambled, I’d be angry at them for doing a shitty job on my tax dime.
    You need to consider also how long it takes between realizing a plane is being used as a missile and shooting it down with fighters. You need to have that option on the table, as soon as you can, to minimize response time. Anything less would be irresponsible

  22. This post is just wrong-headed.

    There’s an incident. Jets are scrambled. Of course they are! It’s over the Capital!

    Of course they would shoot the plane down. Of course they would kill everyone on board. If your goal was to get hits by saying something really dumb, it seems to have worked.

  23. To all those saying scrambling F-16s are wasted tax payer dollars —

    AF pilots are gonna get their boomin’ in one way or the other. Either they actually go out on a mission (like this) or they tool around over the ocean or the desert. Either way, they need a certain amount of flight time to stay sharp.

    Now the cost of the fuel to United….. that’s a different issue.

  24. You are correct that they are sent up so they can shoot it down if necessary.

    In this case it wasn’t necessary. But the key is they didn’t know it wasn’t necessary yet when they sent them up, and if it had been necessary, waiting to send them would be waiting until it is too late.

    It’s like when a cop approaches your car and he has his hand on his holster. He’s not planning to kill you, but if you make any sudden moves he might have to.

  25. You are an idiot. These F16s have pilots, who have eyes, and the point of eyes is to SEE what is going on.

  26. I agree that you’re sensationalist and overreacting, but not for any of the reasons mentioned above. F-16’s can force a plane to land, by flying above the wings and removing it’s lift. They literally can “push” it safely to the ground.

  27. The F16s are most likely not there to mediate the fist fight, 🙂 but to be around in case this was a planned distraction as part of a hijacking attempt. Even if hijacking, I assume they won’t shoot down the plane if it proved to be some nutcase demanding to fly to Cuba. However, if the plane became a missile headed for the White House or Capitol, the pax would be doomed either way, but F16s could serve a sad but useful purpose.

  28. How is this malicious? It’s probably just an outdated SOP. This article is unnecessarily hyperbolic.

  29. I also wonder what those F-16s are for? But in any case, the government should respond appropriately to any situation as well as the crew of the airline. I can only imagine the inconvenience the canceled flight has brought to other passengers.

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