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Forced Removal from United Airlines

Flying United Airlines was never a pleasant business. Functional, sterile, with staff more appropriately disposed to a deep freeze morgue than the hot blood of enthusiastic living, the airline was always an entity you wished ill towards, even as the flight started taking off. Dreams of flying a Gulf carrier or Singapore Airlines would fill the mind in the uneasy sleep.

Brusque, indifferent, and generally rude, it came as little surprise that violence also featured in an incident that has lit up the internet with a deservedly wicked fire.  Central to the story was Dr David Dao, a 69-year-old who claimed he was being singled out on Sunday’s United Express Flight 3411 in Chicago because he was Chinese.

News networks subsequently decided to hone in on Dao’s character, smudged, as it were, by a conviction for trading prescription drugs in return for sex in the last decade.  The Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure, noted the Louisville Courier-Journal, allowed Dao to resume practicing medicine in 2015.

“Reporting this about the man United assaulted,” suggested media analyst Racheline Maltese, “are not relevant to what happened and suggest a misunderstanding of the US legal system.” Rubbish the troubled past of a victim, and things just might go away.

Dao was one of four designated passengers selected for removal from the supposedly overbooked plane after offers of vouchers were rebuffed with disdain from those seated. Three accepted the coerced offer, but the Chinese passenger refused, claiming appointments with patients he needed to see in the morning.

This did not impress the beefy officers of Chicago Aviation Security who had boarded the plane.  A subsequent forced removal was initiated, leaving the passenger bleeding and battered. The suggestion was that he had been difficult, a true sucker for punishment.

It was then revealed that United had selected the four random passengers for removal to fit in crew members who needed to be in Louisville the next day. The farce resulted in protests from other passengers, howls of disapproval directed at the United employees who had come on board the aircraft, and a general announcement for all passengers to leave the plane.

The hazardous dance of United Airlines’ CEO began.  Oscar Munoz, in a first statement, seemed lukewarm, calling the incident “upsetting” while issuing a mild apology for “having to re-accommodate these customers.” United spokesman Charlie Hobart blandly insisted that, the company had “followed the right procedures” a point that is only correct because of the bad habit airlines tend to slip into of overbooking their flights.

In a letter to United employees, Munoz was clear that he backed his staff with a long buried hilt in the face of such inexplicable behaviour by Dao, though did “believe there are lessons we can learn from this experience.”  In somewhat nauseating fashion, he was prosaic: “Treating our customers and each other with respect and dignity is at the core of who we are.” And what respect it was!

What United had not counted on was the rapid spread through the Chinese Twitter equivalent, Weibo.  The sense of customer rage was no doubt spiced by the hazards of flight travel in China, known for its boisterousness and at times sheer physicality.  The right customer can also be a vicious one.

Feverish calls for boycotting the airline, and suggestions that Dao had been singled out for his conspicuously “Asian” background, were registered. By Wednesday, the hashtag “United forcibly removes passenger from plane” proved the most popular on the Weibo network, receiving over half a billion views.  A poor move, then, on United’s part, which proudly claims to operate more non-stop US-China flights to more cities in China than any other airline.  (Last May, United registered 96 departures a week.)

Investors voted with their deft speculative hands, and wiped off 3 per cent of the share price over night, slicing $600 million off the company’s value.  Only then did the company Munoz stir from his complacent slumber and take three with the apology in a statement issued on April 12.  “The truly horrific event that occurred on this flight has elicited many responses from all of us: outrage, anger, disappointment. I share all of these sentiments, and one above all: my deepest apologies for what happened.”

Suddenly, Munoz found himself at one with aggrieved passengers (falling stock prices will do that to an emotionally constipated CEO), claiming that, “Like you, I continue to be disturbed by what happened on this flight and I deeply apologise to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers on board.  No one should ever be mistreated this way.”

Munoz’s statement describes a malady, a crippling disease in the organisation, and, to be fair, an industry that obviously treats passengers as shifting, and disposable units.  “I have committed to our customers and employees that we are going to fix what’s broken so this never happens again.  This will include a thorough review of crew movement, our policies for incentivizing volunteers in these situations, how we handle oversold situations and an examination of how with partner with airport authorities and local law enforcement.” The better approach: Don’t fly United. Ever.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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