The classic 1980 movie comedy “Airplane!” made irreverent fun of the overbaked tropes of airport dramas.
Now, viral cellphone video last week sheds light on a real-life airline absurdity. Only, there’s nothing funny about it. A 69-year-old doctor, David Dao, was asked to give up his seat to one of four United employees who needed spaces on an overbooked flight. So the airline asked for four volunteers to free seats in exchange for vouchers of up to $1,000. After receiving no takers, United randomly picked people. Three agreed. Dao did not.
Rather than consider other options, the plane’s crew summoned three airport security officers to pull the passenger from the seat and drag him down the aisle, as mortified fellow travelers looked on. His glasses were knocked crooked and blood dripped from his mouth. Some passengers pleaded for the officers to stop. Others recorded the incident on cellphone video that was posted to the web and created an international stir.
The most obvious question is why any company would treat a paying customer like this. And why security staff at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport would agree to do their bidding.
Yes, the fine print on the ticket you bought entitles an airline to bump you if it runs out of seats.
Yes, it’s standard practice for airlines to overbook flights.
And, yes, it is understandable that United needed to get those four off-duty employees to Louisville to ensure that a different flight wasn’t delayed or canceled.
But was any of this worth treating a paying customer like a carry-on bag? And was the damage worth whatever costs it would have incurred by allowing that man to remain in his seat? Obviously not. United’s stock prices took a $250 million nosedive two days later, not to mention repercussions in China — where United is the top U.S. airline — because Dao is of Chinese descent.
Beyond a breathtaking lack of judgment by the flight crew and airport security, the incident also shines a light on airline policies. When Congress deregulated airlines in 1978, it pretty much left most rules for passengers to the airlines. In United’s case, that “contract of carriage” contains 37,000 words. It includes the right of the airline to oversell seats to ensure that each plane will be as full as possible.
We could argue for more rules. But how do you regulate common sense and courtesy? Even within the current rules, the crew could have raised the compensation for surrendering a seat and offered the deal to another passenger. If it cost them anything less than $250 million, it would have been well worth the price.
Meanwhile, the corporate blemish will be hard to erase. United’s enduring motto about “Friendly Skies” has become an easy punchline. After initially describing Dao as “disruptive and belligerent,” United CEO Oscar Munoz later apologized. “This can never, will never, happen again on a United Airlines flight,” he said. And it shouldn’t.
The incident recalls a scene from “Airplane!”, in which a long line of crew members and passengers wait for turns to slap a hysterical woman. Surely, air travel doesn’t have to be this cruel and disagreeable.