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United Airlines planes taxiing for departure and landing.
United Airlines planes taxi and arrive to an airport; image courtesy of Louis Nastro, Reuters

The brutal eviction of a passenger on an overbooked United Airlines flight is among the worst public relations disasters in recent history.

Following an announcement that four passengers would be selected to make room for airline staff, an Asian-American man was told he’d have to leave. Saying he was a doctor and had patients to see in the morning made little difference to flight attendants, who threatened to phone security unless he left the plane peacefully.

Passengers watched, protested, and filmed as black-clad airport officials boarded and dragged the man from his seat.

Recordings posted by his fellow passengers on Twitter show the doctor, David Dao, being picked up and hauled toward the door. Dao’s expression was dazed as blood dripped down his face.

As the footage went viral across social media, it was revealed later that Dao suffered a concussion. His nose was broken during the eviction as were several teeth.

News coverage began almost immediately, with every network from CNN to Fox and Breitbart writing, reporting, and blogging about the incident. The heat underneath United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz only intensified as he and company spokesmen rushed to prepare and deliver stilted and robotic statements. Instead of issuing a public apology or vowing to investigate what a clearly over-the-topic reaction, Munoz and United opted to term Dao’s forceful removal as a “re-accommodation.”

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic criticized both United’s response and unwieldy amount of power given to airlines in dealing with overbooked flights.

Footage of the incident provided by Business Insider via YouTube – viewer discretion advised. 

Thompson, along with reporters and columnists from other websites, notes that United selected passengers at random after failing to entice anyone to leave willingly with offers of flight vouchers.

“By law, airlines are required to offer compensation – up to four times the value of the ticket, or $1,350 – before booting customers from the flight,” writers Thompson.

“But a free-market solution would require airlines to raise the compensation offer indefinitely until somebody accepted the offer. It’s a simple matter of fairness,” Thompson explains. “If airlines are permitted to make false promises – and to overbook a flight is, essentially, to promise a service that cannot be fulfilled – they ought to pay the market price to compensate people for the unfulfilled promise.”

However, United Airlines didn’t follow regulations to the last letter. Indications are that United offered vouchers for $800, which garnered no takers.

What make come as a surprise to infrequent flyers is that United may have been within its rights to haul Dao off its aircraft. The company’s contract of carriage, which customers must abide by when purchasing tickets, states that passengers may be involuntarily removed from a flight after compensation is put up for grabs.

Lawyers and experts interviewed by CNNMoney suggested otherwise, saying Dao would have a strong case in the highly likely case he files a lawsuit. Airlines, according to CNN’s experts, do have a right to remove passengers from their planes, but not to illegally arrest or brutalize them in doing so.

Sources

The Deeper Scandal of That Brutal United Video

United passenger Dao suffered concussion, broken nose; lost teeth

United passenger dragged off plane has a strong legal case, experts say

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