United Airlines’ rocky customer service fiasco

Chicago Tribune

Photos from a video taken by a United Airlines passenger showing passenger David Dao being dragged off a United plane.
Photos from a video taken by a United Airlines passenger showing passenger David Dao being dragged off a United plane. Audra D. Bridges, via Associated Press

United Airlines sure had a twisted way of showing customer appreciation during a Sunday flight out of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

A video that has now gone viral across the world shows security officers forcibly yanking a man out of his seat on a United Express flight and dragging him down the aisle by his wrists. Horrified passengers watched — and recorded on their cell phones.

The incident occurred because United needed seats to transport employees to Louisville. The airline sought volunteers to give up their seats. Witnesses said airline representatives said they needed four seats for United employees who had to be in Louisville the next day. The airline offered incentives, but when not enough people volunteered to stay behind, the airline randomly selected four passengers to get off the plane.

One of the four, a doctor named David Dao, 69, wondered why he had been selected and refused to give up his seat after being warned security would be called. Three officers can be seen yanking the man from his seat while he screams. Passengers scream too. His head bangs on an armrest. The officers then grab his wrists and drag him down the aisle on his back. Several videos recorded by passengers show his glasses askew and his abdomen exposed.

“Good work. Way to go,” a passenger can be heard yelling sarcastically at the officers. “My God, what are you doing! Oh my God, look at what you did to him!” another passenger says.

Personal information about Dao has been made public since the incident; for example, he lost his medical license for illegally prescribing Oxycontin. He regained his license in 2015 while making a living as a professional poker player.

But none of that really matters. This is about how Dao was treated as a human being and at the very least, a paying customer.

In Monday’s ensuing uproar, United CEO Oscar Munoz blundered in his initial memos, describing the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent:” “This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened. We are also reaching out to this passenger to talk directly to him and further address and resolve this situation.” Lame. And with Munoz’s euphemistic use of the word “re-accommodate” adding fuel to the social media fire, the CEO had to apologize twice. What a PR fiasco.

We understand that airlines, hotels and restaurants routinely overbook because some customers cancel or simply don’t show up, but if your airline wouldn’t or couldn’t make its employees wait for another flight, or fly a different route, or rent a car and drive to Louisville, then United should have accepted that this could have cost them more money. Far worse is the explosion on social media of a video showing a paying passenger being dragged off your plane. Already, the carrier has seen a stock market backlash that could spread to a passenger boycott.

Certainly, this disturbing incident casts United in an unflattering light. There were so many options on how to handle a passenger determined to get home on an overbooked flight. United picked the worst possible route.

This editorial originally appeared in the Chicago Tribune.