The United Airlines passenger: time to give us our rights

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By now, most of you have no doubt seen the horrifying video of the United Airlines passenger being yanked out of his seat and dragged out of the plane by a couple of security officers. His screams are still echoing around the world: there’s even talk of a boycott against United in China. But in a perverse way, I’m glad it happened.

Not that I bear the poor fellow any ill will. I’m as outraged by his treatment as any of you – and far more than the CEO of United, who had to be prodded into saying “sorry”. But I’m glad the episode has turned the spotlight on how the airlines treat their people at airportcustomers in the pursuit of profit.

At first glance, the whole incident seemed to stem from one of the strange practices that characterize the airline-passenger relationship: overbooking. Industry regulations allow the airlines to sell more seats than the plane actually holds, expecting that a few passengers won’t show up. If they do show up, the airline offers to pay other passengers to take another flight, so there’s the right number of people and seats.

This can be a windfall for travellers with a flexible schedule — like us retirees, as I found out a couple of years ago. But it’s a crazy way to do business: does any other industry work this way? You don’t arrive for a concert to be told they’ve sold your seat to somebody else, so here’s 50 bucks to see the show down the street.

The airline can argue that this avoids them flying with an empty seat. But that no-show seat has already been bought and paid for. Even if the buyer cancels, he or she ends up paying the airline an outrageous fee. It’s just an excuse to “supersize” the revenue from the plane. And it’s time this practice got a hard second look.

In this case, however, overbooking wasn’t the actual problem. As it turns out, United decided at the last minute that it needed to ship four of its employees to Louisville for work the next day. And even though all the passengers were already seated on the plane, it decided to throw four of them off to accommodate its people. That’s when the third-class passengers found out how third-class they really were.

The crew offered the usual compensation for anyone who’d give up their seat – apparently up to $800 U.S., or more. No takers. So they decided to just pick four people and tell them to get off the plane. It’s still undisclosed how they picked the unlucky four; it’s suggested it was done by computer.

Three people got off, grudgingly. And then they came to 69-year-old Doctor David Dao, who said he needed to get home to see his patients the next morning. He wouldn’t budge. The airline crew, determined to get their colleagues his seat, called the cops. And then the whole thing went pear-shaped.

A cellphone video posted on YouTube shows Dr. Dao talking to someone — possibly United — on the phone while they try to convince him to leave.

Then the second, world-famous video showing him being pulled out of the seat, bashing his mouth in the process, and dragged down the aisle like a sack of potatoes as his fellow passengers look on in horror.

What’s wrong here? It’s hard to know where to start. First of all, Dr. Dao presumably paid for his seat, and was lawfully sitting in it. He wasn’t causing a disturbance, or posing a security threat. He did nothing to deserve being thrown off.

If United needed to transport its employees (who apparently took a good hazing when they finally boarded), it was reasonable to ask for volunteers to make seats available. But if no one wanted to get off, the airline should have found another way to get them where they needed to go. Surely, some other airline was flying to Louisville that day.

It shouldn’t be allowed to turf someone out of the seat he bought because of their own staffing problems. And they shouldn’t be allowed to call the cops as if the guy who didn’t want to leave was a criminal. In an emergency, these kinds of measures might be justified — but this was no emergency.

The whole thing smacks of a culture of entitlement: the airlines operate in their own little world of privilege, supported by regulations that give them the power to treat passengers any way they wish. Of course, that mostly means economy-class passengers. As author Helaine OlenAirport lounge wrote in The New York Times this week: “The airlines are seemingly forever coming up with new and innovative ways to coddle an increasingly small group, while treating the majority of fliers with greater and greater contempt.”

United, she notes, just debuted new fold-down seats, with mood lighting and luxury bedding, for business-class passengers. But for economy-class travellers, it’s a world of constant nickel-and-diming – extra charges for choosing your seat, more leg room, a checked bag, a blanket … the list goes on.

This new regime has been highly profitable for the airlines. Once upon a time, it was almost impossible to make money running a major airline. But due to a number of industry mergers and all these new fees, the profits are now rolling in: according to the Times, United reported net income of $2.3 billion U.S. last year. And with the money flowing, things are unlikely to get better for those of us riding in coach.

Maybe it’s time for a new kind of airline — and not the new class of bare-bones budget carriers we’ve been seeing lately. I’m thinking of an airline with decent-sized seats, reasonable change fees, and no extra charges for basic things that should be included in the price of the ticket. And no throwing people off the airplane, like the unfortunate United Airlines passenger, to accommodate their own employees. Perhaps we’d all pay $100 more for our seats. But wouldn’t it be worth it?

Or, on second thought, maybe it’s time for the powers that be to take a second look at airline regulations, with passengers; rights in mind rather than the wellbeing of the airlines. And with the world watching, perhaps Dr. Dao and his lawyer might be the ones to sound the call.

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

10 Comments

  1. Dr. Dao didn’t have a sketchy past. He was misidentified by a British newspaper. His name was similar to the doctor with legal issues.

  2. I agree with what you wrote Paul, however I also read an article outling what rights passengers actually have whether it be in an airline or ship. Basically none! The Captain has all the power and can interpret the rules in the narrowest of ways as obviously did the CEO of United. This is what should be changed in order to reflect customer service.

    I fully understand in the case of unruly passengers, inebriated and aggressive passengers and of course terrorists. However because an aurline makes a mistake or changes in crewing issues, that is the airline’s problem, not the customers’s.

    Having worked as ground staff at Sydney airport in Australia, the international airlines always overbooked, but we would nicely ask passengers prior to boarding, not once seated and on board.

    I also noted that Dr Dao qas in a window seat so he had to be dragged across a seat! Practicality dictates that you would only ask thise in aisle seats to disembark!

    A very sorry tale and I hope United and its Ceo get their just desserts and that passengers desert them in droves.

    • Good points, Winnifred. There are some requirements for airlines to compensate you for a flight delay in some circumstances. But other than that, you seem to be at their mercy. There was a passenger sitting between Dr. Dao and the officers: I hope they at least got him or her out of the way before they tackled him.

  3. “But it’s a crazy way to do business: does any other industry work this way? You don’t arrive for a concert to be told they’ve sold your seat to somebody else, so here’s 50 bucks to see the show down the street.”

    Paul, we have to be very careful here.

    That theatre ticket buyer gets no refund if he or she does not show up. If we pass laws dictating that they cannot overbook, airlines will fly out with more empty seats than before. That will surely mean that either ticket prices will go up or all discounted tickets will become totally nonrefundable or more likely both.

    I say keep the current overbooking rules, but be very careful to hire appropriate security people.

    • I don’t know if you’ve tried to cancel a flight recently, Don, but the penalties are so high that you have precious little left from your fare. And I don’t know if you get anything back if you just don’t show up without cancelling — enlighten me on that. What they used to do with those empty seats was sell them to standby passengers, but I’m guessing the new security measures don’t let them do that any more.

  4. dennis francz on

    it seems very simple to me , perhaps i am being overly naive and simplistic but, we are not forced to fly. so i would suggest anyone who is doing so for pleasure or emergency forgo one year of vacation flying. (any airline) This would make an big impact on the airlines profits and perhaps open their eyes to see where their revenues come from. That is the only way to have a lasting affect on these industries who believe they have what seems to be a strangle hold on the flying public. Any other attempts at changing their attitudes would be as effective as trying to flood the sahara desert with a volley of spit from a camel.

    • I kind of agree, Dennis. Unfortunately, they have us in a stranglehold. But for boomers at least, I’d suggest we start taking the train whenever it’s a feasible choice. It’s a kinder, gentler way of travelling, and you actually get to see the places you’re travelling through. And no drill sergeant grilling you just to let you on to the train. I see the police force now says the officers used “necessary force”. What was necessary was for them to keep their hands to themselves.

    • Thanks for commenting, Dan. It seems to me that so far, the United States is the only part of the world where this is common. I’ve never seen it done in a Canadian airport, or abroad. And as you say, let’s hope it doesn’t spread.

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