In recent weeks, United Airlines has been battling a public relations nightmare, to put it mildly. The video of 69-year-old David Dao being savagely dragged from the airliner by police has been viewed now millions of times and more details are emerging daily about the incident.
To bring you up to speed, Dao, a Vietnamese-born medical doctor who lives in Kentucky, was one of four people randomly selected to be removed from the overbooked flight just before take off from O’Hare International Airport on Sunday, April 9. When he refused to surrender his seat, Chicago Aviation police officers were recorded on cell phone video beating and dragging the man from the plane.
The video shows Dao insisting, quite politely and calmly under the circumstances, that he paid for his seat and he needed to be back at work the next morning and could not miss his flight. He resisted but put up no physical fight. All of his pleas fell on deaf ears and the Gestapo-like behavior of the police was clearly a grandstanding effort to make an example of him for the other passengers.
As you might expect, Dao’s attorney, Thomas Demetrio, has filed a civil suit against United Airlines citing excessive violence. “If you’re going to eject a passenger, under no circumstances can it be done with unreasonable force or violence,” Demetrio said during a press conference. “That’s the law.” And United’s troubles don’t end with this one incident.
Over the Easter holiday weekend, a couple headed to their wedding in Costa Rica was kicked off of a United flight from Houston. According to reports, Michael Hohl and Amber Maxwell had boarded the plane and preparing to take their seats but someone was sitting in one of their seats and fast asleep.
The couple said instead of waking the man, they took up empty seats a few rows ahead. But after being refused an upgrade for the change they were asked to return to the original row, which they say they did without argument. Once there, a US marshal came aboard and removed them from their flight.
Both of these incidents are, we hope, isolated and certainly atypical of the treatment of passengers by air carriers. However, there seems to be a growing trend in the air travel industry to treat paying customers more like baggage than human beings.
For quite some time after the terrorist attacks of 9-11, security is still on the minds of most travelers. But this kind of treatment is about business and money, not safety. It is the responsibility of the carrier to ensure that tickets are only sold to available seats on any flight.
And if someone needs to be bumped, chosen at random so they say, they should take into account the circumstances. By no means should force ever be used where unwarranted, as with the case of Dao. It’s being suggested that Dao’s beating was a horrific act of discrimination, and, given the ease with which the Houston couple was removed, there may be evidence to support that claim.
United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, has made several public apologies repeating that no one should be treated the way Dao had been. But that is no consolation to the victim, nor does it do much to soften United’s reputation as an “unfriendly” business. Unfortunately, the airlines are becoming more and more powerful and there is no end in sight.
As a businessperson, I have flown extensively in my professional life, less so for personal reasons. But given the incredible cost of even a short flight, passengers on any flight should be treated the way anyone else should be, with understanding, humanity and dignity.
The airlines have a strangle hold on customers since they were deregulated in 1978. The Airline Deregulation Act removed any governmental oversight over fares, routes or even market entry of new airlines.
It may have introduced a freer market for smaller air carriers, but removed any level of consumer protection. The government should be investigating United, or any other carrier company, with such egregious acts of assault or discriminatory treatment of passengers. I guess campaign donations speak louder than justice.
Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist and business writer. Deer In Headlines is distributed by GLD Enterprises Communications, Ltd. More at www.deerinheadlines.com.