United flies low in unfriendly skies

opinion April 15, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

For putting profit ahead of people, the US-based airline deserves all the recriminations and financial losses coming its way

There could hardly be a worse public-relations nightmare than what has befallen United Airlines since one of its passengers was dragged bleeding off a flight last Sunday. An abrupt 4-per-cent plunge in the airline’s stock value resulting from global sharing of videos of the incident is likely only the beginning of its woes. That massively expensive drop in United’s share value prompted a second and more earnest public apology from chief executive Oscar Munoz following a tepid first attempt, but severe damage has been done to the airline’s reputation. Calls for a boycott of its services have grown loud. Injured passenger David Dao, a 69-year-old Vietnamese-American physician, is expected to sue. An online petition is demanding that Munoz resign.

In his initial apology, Munoz had the gall to suggest that Dao was partly to blame for having been literally dragged from the just-boarded flight in Chicago, calling him “disruptive” and “belligerent”. Only in his second attempt did Munoz – no doubt having been apprised by then about the law protecting air travellers from “unreasonable force” – agree with the overwhelming majority of commentators that no one should ever be treated that way. Even so, it remains to be seen whether enough people will still take United up on its invitation to “Fly the friendly skies” to keep the airline profitable.

The shocking incident triggered worldwide outrage after two videos circulated online showing aviation police, who were summoned aboard by the flight crew, violently removing Dao from the plane, in the process causing injuries for which he was later hospitalised. Dao was aggressively grabbed and then dragged down the aisle as fellow passengers reacted in horror, saying, “Oh my God!” and “Look what you did to him!” Subsequent claims that Dao was ethnic Chinese and had been a victim of “profiling” caused an uproar in China and calls there for a boycott.

Dao had of course paid for his ticket, but United, like most commercial airlines, overbooks flights to ensure there are never empty seats and, in this case, it needed four seats cleared for its own personnel. Passengers were asked to voluntarily yield their places in return for a $400 voucher and they would be “re-accommodated”, to use Munoz’s scurrilous term. No one volunteered and the offer was upped to $800. With still no takers, four passengers were selected in a random computer-assisted “draw”. Three gave in but Dao refused, saying he had to attend to his patients the next morning. And United resorted to force.

Clearly this is the longstanding problem of overbooked flights coming to a head. Airlines legally can turn away ticketed passengers when flights are overbooked. In effect, they can contrive any reason for ejecting a passenger. (United is being investigated to see if it overstepped the bounds regarding overbooking.)

But there might be more to this particular incident. Munoz’s attitude seems to reflect a deeper social ill in America, one that extends to, among other worrying developments, people of colour being brutalised and killed by police during what should be routine encounters. It’s been suggested that Munoz’s presumption of “belligerence” echoes a common police attitude towards non-white suspects: “If he had obeyed our instructions, this wouldn’t have happened.” Whether Dao’s ethnic background had anything to do with the violence on the plane can probably not be proved, but would the same fate have befallen a passenger who was Caucasian?

That said, politicising this affair accomplishes little. The obvious villain in this story is United, which oversold the flight. No one can fault the passenger who bought the ticket.