United Airlines: Protecting The Company Instead Of Its Customers

04/14/2017 10:51 am ET Updated Apr 14, 2017

At this point, it would be hard to find someone who has not seen the horrifying video footage of police officers forcibly removing a passenger from a United Airlines flight. There is no shortage of commentary on the matter, with recent discussions focusing on the legality of the incident and United’s public response. Some are saying that in spite of how disturbing the incident was – United acted within its legal rights. This is absolutely false. United Airlines acted negligently and inappropriately in removing the passenger from the plane, and then compounded the problem in its public response to the incident.

United Airlines has policies and procedures in place called its “Contract of Carriage,” which permits the airline to refuse service to passengers under certain clearly defined circumstances. For example, United’s “Refusal of Transport” rule lists the various conditions where they can remove a passenger who has already boarded an airplane. Some of these conditions include if a passenger appears to be intoxicated, a passenger’s conduct is abusive or violent, or if a passenger is carrying a weapon. Yet, nowhere does it mention an airplane being “overbooked” as permissible grounds for the airline to forcibly remove a passenger from his or her seat against their will.

© Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The plane being “overbooked” was merely United’s pretext for physically removing Dr. David Dao. However, the plane was not actually “overbooked,” as United later admitted. Rather, the airline wanted to use four seats to fly staff members to Louisville for a flight the next day. United should have taken far more reasonable measures to transport its staff to Louisville, such as offering more money to entice passengers to agree to take another flight. In fact, even though the Department of Transportation permitted United to offer passengers up to $1,350 in cash, they only offered $800 before physically throwing Mr. Dao off the plane. If no passengers were willing to reschedule their flights for money, United should have chartered a small plane to fly its staff members from Chicago to Louisville. All of these options would have been far better than assaulting a paying customer, injuring and embarrassing him in the process. Sadly, United was far more concerned with saving money.

To add insult to injury, United initially failed to accept responsibility for the incident. At first, United’s CEO Oscar Munoz characterized what happened as a “re-accommodation.” He then sent a letter to employees describing Dr. Dao as “disruptive and belligerent,” and said that the United “employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this.” Fewer than thirty-six hours later, and only after United’s stock price plummeted and its customers expressed public outrage, did he change his tune. Finally, he came out and stated that the company would take “full responsibility” and formally apologized to Dr. Dao. This is exactly what United should have done from the outset. Before rushing to publicly criticize a paying customer, Mr. Munoz should have put himself, or one of his family members, in Dr. Dao’s shoes and thought about how morally reprehensible and inexcusable the entire incident was. Mr. Munoz might have a M.B.A., but he needs a degree in common sense.

While United Airlines’ response to this incident may surprise some people, I was unfortunately not surprised. Far too often, large companies respond to negligent or inappropriate actions by only attempting to protect themselves and evade responsibility. Companies even try to blame the victim, as United did here in describing Dr. Dao’s behavior as “disruptive and belligerent.” Salacious news about Dr. Dao’s personal history also surfaced as a result of United’s response. But Dr. Dao’s personal history is a red herring and completely misses the point; no rule abiding, paying customer, regardless of their personal circumstances, should be forcibly removed from a plane.

Unfortunately, it often takes tragic events like the one here to spur change. I’ve represented victims for my entire career in all types of avoidable accidents and learned first-hand that companies regularly fail to take proactive steps to prevent tragedy. Hopefully United Airlines will learn from this massive and inexcusable blunder and never allow anything like this to happen again. Nevertheless, Dr. Dao has grounds for a strong civil lawsuit against United for the various injuries they have caused him.

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