Dragging bloodied Asian doctor David Dao off United Airlines Flight 3411 April 10 en route from Chicago to Louisville, United Airlines finds itself in quicksand excusing its actions. Multiple iPhone videos went viral watching airport security drag what looked like a bloodied, semiconscious passenger up the aisle and out of the plane. United Airline CEO Oscar Munoz refused to apologize, blaming the incident on an unruly passenger. Dao was issued a boarding pass with an assigned seat, when United officials asked for volunteers to deplane for $800. When no one volunteered to deplane, United officials said they randomly selected four passengers to surrender their seats because the airline needed the seats for United personnel. When Dao refused to surrender his seat, Chicago Airport security was called, forcibly dragging him out of his seat, up the aisle and off the plane.
United CEO Munoz made nothing but excuses for what looked like the most abusive customer relations imaginable. “We sought volunteers and then followed our involuntary denial of boarding process [including offering up to $1000 in compensation],” said Munoz, stating for the record how he didn’t follow his own policy. “Involuntary denial of the boarding process” starts before passengers are issued boarding passes. Once the boarding pass is issued to a passenger, it’s a contract to perform the service of transporting a designated passenger to a given location. Munoz had no right to revoke Dao’s ticket because the airline wished to ferry its own personnel to Louisville. “When we approached one of these passengers to explain apologetically that he was being denied boarding, he raised his voice and refused to comply with crew member instructions,” said Munoz, telling his second falsehood.
When Munoz said Dao was denied boarding he was already in his assigned seat. Munoz has no excuse for issuing Dao a boarding pass, letting the passenger take his assigned seat, then reneging on the passenger’s ticket. Dao wasn’t denied boarding as Munoz insists, he followed protocol, presented his boarding pass and lawfully took his assigned seat. Admitting one of the officers didn’t follow protocol, the Chicago Department of Aviation, relieved the officer in question of duty. “While it is legal for airlines to involuntarily bump passengers from an oversold flight when there are not enough volunteers, it is the airline’s responsibility to determine its own fair boarding priorities,” said U.S. Department of Transportation in a statement. Bumping a paid passenger with a boarding pass to accommodate airline personnel is egregious. Internal airline issues are not passengers’ problems.
Watching United Airlines stock sell off today reflect the PR damage done by recent mishap. Munoz hurt his own company stating falsehoods about the boarding process. Once Dao was issues his boarding pass, the airline had no right to revoke it unless there was appropriate probable cause, including suspected terrorism or criminality. Dao sat in his assigned seat when Chicago Airport Authority law enforcement dragged him out of his seat, up the aisle and out the door. DOT officials don’t really know the legality of what United Airlines did before it goes before a judge. Unless there was probable cause for removing Dao from his seat, and not to ferry more airline employees, no judge would rule in the airline’s favor. Dao wasn’t a fugitive from justice or suspected terrorist, only an innocent bystander holding a legitimate boarding pass, expecting to fly to his destination.
Watching a paid passenger with a boarding pass bloodied and dragged off a flight because the airline needed his seat is outrageous. Dao’s mistake was that he resisted the airline’s requests to surrender his seat and deplane. However you look at the incident, United Airlines remains liable for, at the very least, abusive treatment. While Dao should have cooperated, the airline shouldn’t arbitrarily boot passengers with boarding passes off assigned seats without legitimate probable cause. Munoz should have followed United Airlines protocol and not allowed Dao to board the flight. Once passengers take their seats, it’s not appropriate no matter how over sold the flight to force seated passengers off the flight. Airline personnel know that standby passengers, including airline employees, don’t take precedent over paid-and-boarded passengers, no matter how urgent their situations.
United Airlines could have avoided the whole mess if they didn’t allow Dao to board the flight in the first place. But airlines have an obligation to passengers issued boarding passes to deliver them to their destinations. Whether Dao was a doctor or anything else, United Airlines should not arbitrarily boot off paid passengers with boarding passes, unless there’s real probable cause, like criminal suspicion. Munoz needs to deliver a much-needed apology, reassuring passengers that the same problem would not happen again. If an airline needs to transport its own personnel, it can’t be at the expense of paid passengers with boarding passes. While there’s nothing wrong with asking for volunteers, there’s something terribly wrong with kicking off boarded passengers to accommodate an airline’s internal needs. Munoz needs to apologize, fix the problem or step down.