Was United In The Wrong?

This weekend, United Airlines made the headlines with a disturbing video of a passenger being forcefully removed from an overbooked plane. The videos were posted online by fellow passengers, many of whom were noticeably troubled at the actions against the passenger. There are many different angles to this story, so let’s try to break it down a little bit.

First, some background. United Airlines apparently overbooked a flight from Chicago O’Hare to Louisville, KY. There were several United employees that needed to board the full flight, presumably to fly elsewhere for staffing needs. United offered passengers up to $800 to volunteer to give up their seat and be rebooked on the next available flight. Well, no one offered their seat, so United picked 4 people at random to be “volun-told” that they would be giving up their seat.

Here is where the main story begins. 3 of the passengers who were chosen to deplane complied and took their money and new boarding pass for a later flight, but passenger David Dao refused, stating that he was a physician and had to see patients the next day. When Dao refused, United called in airport police to remove him from his seat. This is where the videos posted online begin, of Dr. Dao screaming as he is removed from his aisle seat and dragged down the middle aisle of the plane, then on to the hospital with injuries.

Was United in the wrong by removing Dao? Not really.
Was Dao wrong by refusing to deplane? Technically yes.
Was the airport police wrong in their handling of the issue? Yes and no.

Let me explain.

When you buy an airline ticket with any airline, your purchase includes you agreeing to the airlines “contract of carriage”. Basically, it is all the rules of the airline, weather disclaimers, fees, acts of God, etc, etc… but it also includes clauses as to reasons why you can be removed from a plane, which can include intoxication, poor hygiene and even overbooking. If you have ever flown with any airline, you know that overbooking is a common practice in the industry, because there will inevitably be something that causes 1 or 2 people to miss a flight. They could be delayed from another flight, traffic, cancelled itinerary for business reasons, etc. So generally, the overbooking process works out just fine with a full flight, but sometimes, it doesn’t work out that way, as is the case here. When that happens, someone isn’t getting on the plane and typically airlines offer generous compensation packages for someone who volunteers to get off.

United was well within their right to have these 4 passengers removed from the flight, based upon the contract of carriage that Dao signed when he booked the ticket. His refusal to deplane put him in breach of the contract he had “signed”, no matter who he was, or his occupation. Typically, being a frequent flier with the airline rewards program will keep you from being one of the “lucky” ones chosen to deplane, but it’s not a guarantee.

When Dao refused to deplane at the peaceful requests of the United staff, they called in the airport police. Dao continued to refuse and was then forcefully removed from the plane. The officer who removed him from his window seat was only doing the job he was instructed to do by his supervisors. Maybe he could have been more gentle, but his job was to clear the offending passenger and prepare the plane for departure.

Dao did what was not within his rights, again based on the contract of carriage and he was forcefully removed from the plane. I’m not sure what United or the airport police officers could have done differently in this situation, but I’m sure there will be an investigation and training that will come from this.

What is the moral of this story? Where has the respect for authority gone in this world? These kinds of things used to be unheard of, but have become all too common today and I think it is due to a lack of respect for those in authority. Dao was instructed to deplane by United staff as well as airport police and he refused, and was given the justice that was coming to him, which was to be removed from the plane. It didn’t look pretty, but I don’t know what could have been done any differently to change the outcome. Listen to reasonable orders given to you by your authority, even if you disagree with it. Sure, you can tweet about it later, start a White House petition, contact your congressmen/women, write a letter to the editor, or start a blog. But remember, they are still in a position of authority and are due some respect.

I hope Dao is able to recover quickly from his injuries and return home to continue seeing his patients. And I hope everyone is able to learn a lesson about this for their future airline travel, whether it is with United or someone else.

*Image credit – Twitter: @Reflog_18


Jason – Three Patriots

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