This week the internet has exploded with video footage of a man being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight in a brutal manner, leaving him bloodied, dazed, and at one point, potentially unconscious.
Without reading any of the backstory or listening to the narrative on some of the videos, one would assume the passenger had caused some kind of massive disturbance, violent act, or otherwise inappropriate flight behaviour. The reality of the situation is much more terrifying. The man was removed not because of bad behaviour, but because at the last minute, after all passengers had already boarded, United decided that four flight staff absolutely had to board that specific flight for another flight.
According to one ABC news outlet, the flight was being operated for United by Republic Airline, and after the flight was fully boarded, four employees approached the gate saying they needed to board.
Overbooking of flights is fairly common practice, albeit kind of sketchy, so that part isn’t necessarily the issue. The first big issue with this whole scenario is that these employees showed up post-boarding, saying they needed to be on the flight – something that is not the fault of the passengers in any way, shape, or form. Whether it’s these employees specifically who just showed up late or it was the company who made a last-minute call saying they needed to be on this flight doesn’t really matter. An airline should not be able to force people off a flight because staff on standby couldn’t be bothered to even notify the flight in advance that they needed to board.
That leads into the second issue, which lies in placing the responsibility of boarding these staff members on the passengers who are already on the plane. First, they were offered $400 vouchers to volunteer, then $800, an amount that hardly acts as an apology for forcing them off the plane and having their luggage then sent to the destination possibly a day or more ahead of them, depending on how frequent flights are between these two cities.
The third, and quite frankly, the absolutely biggest issue with this whole thing is that airport authorities were called to forcibly remove a passenger who would not leave the flight. The passenger was allegedly a doctor who needed to be back to see patients the next day and could not risk missing the flight.
Now, while we have to say ‘allegedly’ because credentials and appointments haven’t been shown to back it up, I don’t think at this point that really matters. The flight staff literally decided that medical care was less important than employees who didn’t even show up on time. Rather than simply having the computer pick another seat when the man cited his reasons for not getting off, airport security came in and violently dragged the man out of his seat, then off the plane.
To make matters worse, when all was said and done and the videos had gone viral, the CEO of United actually defended the actions, blaming the passenger for the escalation. When the public wasn’t having it, one newspaper decided to run a story about the passenger’s past as if that somehow justified the way he was treated. Besides the fact that is terrible journalism, what the hell does something that happened ages ago have to do with airport staff violently removing him for refusing to vacate his seat?
Of course, the internet was having none of this and outrage continued.
Later Tuesday evening, the CEO retracted his previous statement, offering an apology, expressing his understanding at the shock and outrage, and announcing United would be reviewing policies for staff travel and incentivizing volunteers.
Publicly, the apology doesn’t seem like enough, but I would hope that privately, the airline intends to provide Dr. Dao with quite the compensation package to make up for how he was treated.
I’m left quite baffled about the entire situation. To begin with, I’ve always felt it was pretty crappy practice to require that passengers give up their seats and to overbook in the first place. The argument that it helps keep flight costs low is bull to me, because flight costs aren’t low. If anything, they continue to get steeper and steeper.
That anyone, even security, could think using physical violence is acceptable to remove a passenger who didn’t want to give up a service they had paid for is absolutely mind-boggling. He wasn’t breaking any laws, he wasn’t doing anything but refusing to vacate his seat, and somehow excessive force is just the natural order of doing things?
The CEO’s initial response was another point. Here, United had the opportunity to smooth things over. Rather than simply labelling it unfortunate and placing immediate blame on the customer, it would have certainly been more prudent to simply admit that this was handled terribly. In my view, the way the company responded revealed how United truly feels about their passengers – customers are not important, just their money.
While many people will likely be waiting to see the conclusion of how Dr. Dao’s case plays out against the airline, I’m sure a lot of others will no longer be flying with United Airlines. In a time when many airlines claim to be struggling to stay in the air, United seems to have just shot itself in the foot.