An orchestra plays United’s theme, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, while passenger Dr. Dao is dragged off the plane in this satire on Funny Or Die.
Flying home from COFES on Sunday afternoon from Phoenix, I silently chafed at how sloppy passengers had become. Next to me was a passenger in flip flops. Gross. We’re going to hell in a handbasket. I had no idea another passenger, on a different flight, was suffering a much worse fate.
Dr. Dao, ticketed and seated on United flight 3411 in Chicago’s O'Hare airport, was preparing to fly back to Louisville, KY. He had appointment with patients the next day. But a flight crew of four had approached the gate agent. They needed to get to their plane which could not take off without them. What was an airline to do?
Dr. Dao was picked to give up his seat. He refused. It led to a scuffle with police who boarded the plane. The 69-year old was flung to the floor. His head hit the armrest on the way down. He lost two front teeth and suffered a broken nose and a concussion, says his attorney. He was dragged out of the plane. His bleeding and screaming was captured on video.
Dr. Dao managed to break free and run back into the plane. He clung to a cabin bulkhead pathetically sobbing, repeating "I have to go home.”
The flight was emptied of all passengers while Dr. Dao was subdued, his blood was mopped up and he was carried out on a stretcher (no video).
A PR Nightmare for United
It has become a public relations nightmare for United, far worse than when in 2009, a passenger sang “United Breaks Guitars,” a YouTube hit with 17 million views to date. United’s valuation, based on its stock price, dropped by almost a billion dollars. It has recovered but was still down about a quarter of a billion a week later.
The disturbing video of Dr. Dao’s limp body being unceremoniously dragged to through the narrow aisle as several passengers protested from their seats was immediately picked up by every major news service. Over the next few days, it competed with Mr. Trump’s various escapades for top news story.
United was slow to offer a real apology -- and some feel it still hasn't. CEO Oscar Munoz, who only last month was awarded "Communicator of the Year" by PR Week, waited 2 days to express his regret, but not before he blundered by stating United had "reacommodated" their passengers -- a poor choice of words that did not escape the indignation of those who asked that United "reacommodate" Mr Munoz himself.
There Ought to be a Law – For Us
United stands behind the "Contract of Carriage” which it says binds all its passengers, even though no one has read it much less signed it. Even the news services had to dig that up after United tried to stand behind it. According to the fine print, anyone who buys a ticket can be booted off, even at the last minute.
Similar to the EULA (end user license agreement) that software vendors claim binds all its users, which is also something that is almost never read, not understood, never signed, but somehow became law. We are subject to its one-sided, often draconian claims. For example, you might be in violation by using software across an international border, or if you design a product for which the vendor does not approve (the nuclear industry) or work for a company not in their favor (a competitor). Who knows what else. I’ve never read it.
Airline passengers can do little to resist. A "Passenger Bill of Rights" does not exist. After generations of declining service, vanishing perks, shrinking space, invasive searches, we are weak and conditioned to queue, march en masse, and pack together tighter than industrially farmed livestock.
While the courts seem to have let unseen and unsigned contracts rule us, law enforcement also marches in step. Suspect is the use of public law enforcement personnel to do the bidding of a for-profit corporation, as in the Chicago airport police who forcibly evicted Dr. Dao on United's behalf.
United Flight 3414, despite initial claims to the contrary, was not overbooked. When a flight is overbooked, United will ask for volunteers to give up their seat before the passengers start boarding. But this flight was full of seated passengers and ready to take off. United did offer incentives to the seated passengers, 1st $400 then $800 in flight vouchers. That usually works at the gate, but with passengers buckled in and ready to go home or on vacation – not so well.
The flight crew of 4 were still waiting.
United then had to resort to picking out passengers "at random." According to airline insiders, the process is hardly random. It is more like selecting among the less fortunate, the customers from whom they won’t mind hearing “I’ll never fly United again.”
Airlines have more stratifications for its passengers than the Hindu caste system. Most visible in the difference between the spacious, lay flat seats in 1st class and crammed seats in the back, there are many invisible status levels. United top layer is Global Services, followed by 1K, then Platinum Premier, Premier Gold, Silver... If you have are 1K and above, you needn't worry about getting your teeth knocked out and being dragged down the aisle. If you are in the middle seat in the back of the plane and wondering what your status is, you may want to hold on to something when the men in black board the plane.
United has announced today a change in policy: Crew members will no longer be allowed to displace seated customers on a flight.
A Better Way
Instead of asking for volunteers at the gate, why not ask customers through the United app? An offer to take a later flight with the right incentives would be a bonus for United’s most frequent flyers. Offers and bids could be done on the app – which seem much more civilized than blaring calls for volunteers on the PA system
I would love to be considered to give up my seat for a later flight with the right incentives and almost always volunteer unless I have a meeting or event I can’t be late for. It would be great if I could accept an offer just by tapping on my app, rather than have to leave my baggage and rush the gate agent.
This would require the United app to be able to send real time messages and that its passengers have the app and are connected – just about a given with frequent flyers these days. If it means that United has to offer WiFi in and around its gates, so much the better for its customers. Perhaps United could announce free WiFi as a win for its customers. And does anyone need a win more desperately than United right now?