As if flying wasn’t stressful enough

United Airlines overbooking policy up in the air

By Sarah Sidlow

Is there a doctor on board? Not anymore!

By now, you’ve likely seen or heard about a video of a physical confrontation between United Airlines passenger David Dao and the security officer who forcibly removed him from United flight 3411 on April 10. But how did we get to the moment when Dao, face bloody and shirt above his belly, was literally dragged down the airplane aisle?

Dao boarded the plane with the intention of flying from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky, when he was reportedly selected by an IT system (along with three others) to relinquish his seat for four last-minute flight crew additions. (Typically, factors like time before the next available flight and whether a passenger is a minor or traveling with a family are at play in these situations.)

Dao said, roughly, “nope.” Probably a few times. The videos tell the rest. Dao’s family later announced that he had suffered a concussion, a broken nose, and had lost his two front teeth. The Chicago Department of Aviation officers involved in the event have been put on leave. And United Airlines fought with heavyweights Sean Spicer and Pepsi in a competition to have the biggest PR disaster—in one week.

The headlines have stirred up numerous questions about airlines’ overbooking policies, and how companies should best balance policy with performance. It seems airlines regularly overbook their flights under the assumption that a handful of passengers will simply not show up. When flights end up with more passengers than seats, they will often set up a sort of auction, offering passengers money, accommodations, or alternate flights in exchange for voluntarily giving up their seats. For flexible travelers, it can be a pretty lucrative gig. But Dao, who paid for his ticket and wanted to go home to see his patients, wasn’t thrilled with the notion. Somewhere along the line, United determined they still needed another seat for one of its crewmembers, and Dao was their man. It’s worth noting that a bystander reported that Dao initially volunteered his and his wife’s seats before finding out the next available flight wasn’t for 24 hours or so. It may also be worth noting that Dao accused the airline of singling him out because he was Chinese.

Some argue the incident, while regrettable, was the product of United Airlines policy. You know those things you never read before you click, “I accept the terms and conditions?” Apparently, there’s information about overbooking and the fact that you might be ejected from your seat in there. If you don’t like it, they argue, don’t buy the ticket.

The United contract of carriage lists about 27 reasons why the airline “shall have the right to refuse transport or shall have the right to remove from the aircraft at any point, any passenger”—including a passenger who’s too drunk or sick to fly, or “barefoot or not properly clothed.” One could argue that Dao may have broken a rule when he refused to give up his seat, and was therefore removed.

But other people say there can’t possibly be anything in the rulebook that protects airlines from bloodying the faces of their passengers. They argue a common-sense approach to running a business does not involve, you know, beating up customers behind the protective veil of policy. Moreover, some point to the notion that while airlines pay upwards of $1,000 to passengers who voluntarily give up their seats, they don’t have to offer compensation to those passengers they forcibly remove.

You know, except for the lawsuits…

 

Reach Dayton City Paper debate moderator Sarah Sidlow at SarahSidlow@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

Debate Forum Question of the Week:

Should United Airlines be blamed?

 

The friendly skies

Corporate airlines loom large over the little guy

By Ben Tomkins

For those of you who were sickened by images of a bleeding, dazed, foreign-born man standing at the back of a United Airlines flight, his breath whistling and gurgling through a fresh gap in his dentition, courtesy of the police, for the crime of being an inconvenience, I have only one thing to say to you: get comfortable and settle into your recliner because this is only episode 1, season 1.

Large business entities in America are the vassals of our increasingly feudal economic landscape. As our government has become more beholden to economic nobility, corporations have deployed the reach of the state more and more, as if the state were an extension of the corporate infrastructure. Anyone who watched the video of David Dao refusing to give up his seat, all so United could privilege its employees and its bottom dollar, bore witness to the ease with which a civic police force is mustered behind a corporate banner. In some ways it’s a shame that there wasn’t a seat at the back of the plane to which they could have told him to move. It would have been a more perfect analogy, but one hopes that it’s not a competition.

For anyone who feels this characterization is unfair, look no further than the speed and ease with which both United employees and the airport police accepted the premise that it was right to remove him and the callousness of United’s response to the incident. Airlines routinely overbook flights, and as there are a finite number of seats on an airplane and an obvious number of tickets sold, it is a given that people are bumped off every minute of every day for the sake of maximizing corporate profits. How easily we have all swallowed and tolerated the notion that the airlines are justified in doing so, for no other reason than what they tell us—that they are in danger of going under if we don’t let them.

Last year, United made $2.3 billion dollars in net profit, and their pitiful CEO, Oscar Munoz, received a good $18 million in compensation. By any standard, United seems to be doing just fine, and although packing every sardine tin chock-full of preserved fish does help with the bottom line, it’s not a make-or-break business necessity. As with any business, airlines don’t particularly want to leave money on the table, and if that means engaging unethical business practices—overselling and then ruining people’s travel plans on a daily basis—I suppose that’s what’s going to happen. Airlines have one distinct advantage that the average New York taxi cab doesn’t: once you’re through airport security, the broadly competitive economic landscape under which you bought your ticket no longer exists, and you are subject to an only-game-in-town market backed by a vastly different set of legal boundaries.

In other words, the airlines have you by the throat.

When I say we should all get used to seeing images of the David Daos of the world, beaten and dragged around like a pit bull’s chew toy, I mean it both figuratively and literally. We now have a professional CEO in the White House; and the mentality of corporate feudalism has already begun to manifest. There are multiple flights every day shipping illegal immigrants (at least, illegal in so far as we can determine without a trial) out of the country, and the American public has no idea what is happening on those flights. In fact, we usually have no idea what is happening to immigrants after they are arrested, because our government is telling us to be calm and not ask questions so they can operate at peak efficiency. That’s about as corporate as it gets, and from what little information we do have, it sounds like the poor people caught up in the system are being shuttled around like prisoners to concentration camps while awaiting mass transportation.

Concerning David Dao’s ethnicity, American’s should be holding a special place in their memory for footage of an ethnic Vietnamese person being attacked by the security personnel of the United States. Look at our posturing in the Philippine Sea in response to North Korea’s slighting of the American ego, and ask yourself why a country whose military is of an entirely different order than any other on earth so desperately needs an increase in military spending. At the rate we are going, in the near future, there will be significant vacuums appearing in the Korean share of the auto and electronics industries.

We should be horrified by how United and the police treated David Dao, and we all need to use this as motivation to reconsider our comfort level with big business and executive power.

 

Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist, and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. For more of his work, visit HillofAthens.com. Reach him at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

 

Special only in his own mind

Compliance with authority is everyone’s civic duty

By David H. Landon

It would seem that the corporate villain du jour is United Airlines. They have made themselves such an easy target by dragging 69-year-old Dr. David Dao kicking and screaming off an overbooked flight, that everyone now feels justified in piling on the beleaguered carrier. The visuals certainly were horrible. Several of Dao’s fellow passengers captured the event on their smart phones and in a nanosecond shared the videos with the world on YouTube. Airport security was called in when Dao refused to voluntarily give up his seat. Dao and three other passengers were asked to give up their seats to accommodate four United Airline personnel who had to board that particular flight in order to staff United Airline flights in other cities. The three other passengers complied with the request. Dr. Dao did not. As the security personnel attempted to forcibly remove the good doctor from his seat, they managed to bang his face, drawing blood from his lip and mouth. It was ugly.

While United is guilty of mishandling the ejection of Dao from the flight, I do not agree that United is totally to blame for the confrontation. Airlines must have the authority to remove passengers from planes under the legal theory of contract of carriage. This contract of carriage is a lengthy agreement between passengers and airlines, and it includes a section about behavior that can get a passenger removed from the plane. These contracts are scores of pages long and can be found on each carrier’s website. The fine print on the back of the ticket indicates that the passenger, in purchasing the ticket, has consented to the terms of the carrier contract. Most of us have never read the agreement.

One condition of the contract is that if you are asked to leave a plane, even if you have purchased a seat and have done nothing wrong, the airline has the right to remove you from the flight. In an overbooked flight scenario, the airline may ask that you leave the plane to accommodate other passengers or airline personnel. That’s the situation with Dr. Dao’s removal from the flight. After the airline asked for volunteers to leave the plane in exchange for cash and a future flight, there were no takers.

Dr. Dao and three other passengers’ names were picked in some form of ticket lottery, and they were asked to deplane to accommodate the four United Airlines personnel. (Airline business models depend on being able to fly personnel around to where they are needed.) Three agreed to take another flight. Dr. Dao mistakenly believed he was special. Dao argued that he was a doctor and had patients to see in the morning in Louisville, the destination city of the flight. Although he initially agreed to take another flight, upon learning there would be no later flight that evening, he refused to leave his seat. When he refused to leave, the airline called in airport security, which dragged the noncompliant doctor by his arms down the aisle, evidently thumping his head along the way.

Here’s my problem with the refusal by Dr. Dao. As much as he would like to think otherwise, the doctor is not a “special” passenger. None of us are “special” passengers. In flying, we agree to the rules of the carrier. If you are picked to give up your seat, the airline is within its legal right to impose upon your happy travel. Do you have a remedy to the imposition? Yes, you certainly do. However, it must come in the form of monetary compensation, hotel accommodations, and future flight accommodations. You do not have the right to declare, based on some notion of your unique position in the world, “I shall not be moved!”

This is a reoccurring theme in a society where everyone is a victim. I’m sorry that the doctor was injured in the confrontation, but now he’s milking the incident. His recent statement in which he declared that the incident was more horrifying than his 1975 escape from Vietnam in a small, crowded boat, is preposterous. As many as 200,000 of his fellow refugees perished when they attempted to leave Vietnam by boat after the war. Surely his unfortunate dust-up with United Airlines pales by comparison. Here, victimhood equals cash.

Society is treading on perilous ground when no one wants to accept the command of someone in authority. We see it every day when police are forced to wrestle individuals into submission when a lawful command is given and then willfully ignored while they arrest people. The remedy is not to resist what you believe to be an unlawful arrest. The remedy is to use the courts to punish unlawful acts by the police, if in fact they have occurred. Although the police are not always right, if they are attempting to arrest you, you must comply. If I had children today, I would make certain they understand that basic fact.  If given an order by a police officer, you must comply. We’ll sort it out later, and if called for, we will bring an action in court to remedy any unlawful action taken by the police.

 

David H. Landon is the former Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee. He can be reached at DaveLandon@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Ben Tomkins
Ben Tomkins is a violinist, teacher, journalist and critically acclaimed composer currently living in Denver, Colorado. He hates stupidity and generally believes that the volume of one’s voice is inversely proportional to one’s knowledge of an issue. Reach Ben Tomkins at BenTomkins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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