The basis for the situation the parties found themselves in was simple: airlines are authorized to overbook flights and they regularly do so. They are then required to offer inconvenienced passengers some compensatory adjustment for being bumped from their flight. Having been a corporate traveler for over 35 years, I have seen this play out many times, with announcements being made at the boarding gate that a flight is overbooked and they would like “x” number of passengers to volunteer to be placed on a later flight in return for specific compensation. When no volunteers are forthcoming regardless of what is offered, the airline may choose passengers to bump based on variables such as check-in time, ticket class, or how inconvenienced the passenger may be by accommodating the airline. In my experience, however, this is not a frequent occurrence.
From what I can understand, once boarded and seated, Dr. Dao was chosen to relinquish his seat and he refused, saying he had an appointment in the morning. In response to a Chicago Aviation police officer threatening to drag him off, Dao said, “Well, you can then drag me,” and reiterated he would not go. In the ensuing melee, Dr. Dao’s attorney now claims his client suffered a broken nose, concussion, and the loss of two front teeth. Now, a part of me understands that Dr. Dao had fulfilled the requirements to be in that seat and up to that point had done nothing to warrant him being forcibly removed from the aircraft. That said, however, I think it was poor judgment on his part to weld himself to the seat and refuse to leave. He could have had recourse with the airline after he left the aircraft but instead he basically said, Drag me from the plane, and the police called his bluff, and did so.
Of course since there has been a dearth of newsworthy stories of late, the media has made this incident a cause célèbre with Dr. Dao the innocent victim of a merciless airline operation that cares only about its bottom line. Some have called for the federal government to intercede—as if that is a solution. Others have called for a change to airline policies, but my guess here is that proper policies were already in place to handle this situation but they were not followed. But if they don’t have the following policy, they should: Once boarded, passengers should be left where they are--issues must be resolved prior to boarding.
When a flight is overbooked, it falls to the gate agent to initiate the effort to find volunteers or to designate passengers to move to other flights. In this case, all passengers were boarded and then it was discovered that four United Airline personnel needed to be on the flight to cover for another flight the following morning. United Airline’s thought was it would be better to inconvenience four passengers on one flight than an entire plane load the next day. At this point the problem was essentially handed off to the aircraft Captain, as in, “Here, you take the screaming monkey.” Well, it appears the Captain was probably more concerned with avoiding a delay in takeoff than in what was going on in the passenger cabin.
United will probably lose any legal battle Dr. Dao and his attorney pursue, regardless of Dao’s contribution to the situation. Beyond that, if the airlines are forced to eliminate the practice of overbooking, the public will also lose because their tickets will eventually have the price of the empty seats built into them. Certain customer service conveniences will also be eliminated—like the ability to buy preferential treatment and print your boarding pass prior to arriving at the airport.
Deserved or not, United Airlines is being made an example of, even though this could have happened at any other carrier since most employ the same overbooking policies. What is unfortunate is that had cooler heads prevailed, the outcome would have been different. It seems to me, once Dr. Dao and the policeman assumed their ego positions that they were headed for trouble since neither would back down and there was no place to go. Now thanks to another passenger who videotaped the episode, it has taken on a significance that may not be wholly warranted. After all, millions of flights come and go without incident. We may be blowing this one situation with a tired passenger and overzealous security out of proportion. One thing you can count on, if Dr. Dao prevails and receives hefty compensation from United, then it will not be long before the “copycat principle” enters the passenger cabin via those who desire an easy buck any way they can get it.
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