Apportioning Blame for Dragging Passenger Off United Flight Helps Figure Out What Should Be Done Differently

It’s simply disgusting what happened to the doctor booted from the flight in Chicago on Sunday. Watching the videos of the incident is hard, it’s disturbing, and cringe-worthy. And that’s just watching, even now, several days later. That’s not actually living it, the way Dr. David Dao did.

Outrage can be useful in focusing attention and agitating for change. It can also act as a fog making it difficult to see clearly, internalize facts, and target problems correctly.

There are actually some hard questions that led up to Sunday night’s incident.

While it was an unusual decision to send crew in place of passengers on United flight 3411 Sunday night from Chicago to Louisville, it was a decision that may have made sense. The plan was to inconvenience and compensate four passengers and avoid having to cancel a full flight of passengers and probably even more — without those crew members they might have to cancel or at least substantially delay the flights later in the day operated by the same aircraft, causing even more passengers to miss their own appointments or returns home and missing further connections still.

It’s easy to second guess whether crew should have been sent on a different sold out flight, and assert that the airline should simply be able to send crewmembers via Uber (even though the airline doesn’t get to send its employees wherever it wants however it wants, and the length of the drive would likely have meant delaying the flight they were supposed to work while they got legally required minimum rest hours).

Maybe the airline should have valued the passengers they were bumping more than the greater number of passengers flying the next day. In retrospect they certainly wish they had come up with some number beyond the $800 and a hotel night they were offering customers to voluntarily give up their seat.

Apportioning Blame

Tough operational questions for an airline shouldn’t end in a passenger who purchased a ticket and boarding his flight being dragged off the plane and bloodied by police especially for what even seems like arbitrary reasons or the mere convenience of an airline.

What United Did Wrong:

They created the situation.

  1. Though the airline’s initial PR statement after the incident correctly pointed out that the flight was operated by their United Express contract carrier Republic Airlines, they exert tremendous control. The decision to send four crewmembers on the flight in place of passengers, because they were needed to operate another flight (and not inconvenience many more other passengers) was either not made quickly enough or communicated to the gate quickly enough, so that voluntary or involuntary denied boardings could take place before passengers got on the aircraft. It’s not clear this matters legally or even ethically, but passengers feel differently being moved out of seats they’re already sitting in, and react differently as a result.

  2. They called the police on a customer who had a valid reservation and boarding pass for the seat he was sitting in. I do think the airline was within standard industry practice in asking the passenger to give up his seat. However it’s incumbent upon them to explain and solve the situation with the customer, to diffuse the situation not escalate it. Airlines call the police too quickly and too frequently as soon as there’s a disagreement with an employee and that has to change, not every customer service problem is a law enforcement problem.

What the Aviation Police Did Wrong:

This is far simpler: excessive force. They didn’t de-escalate the situation. They acted as United Airlines private security and it shouldn’t be their role to simply carry out instructions from the airlines as its enforcer. They did so dragging the passenger on the ground and bloodying him, breaking two teeth and also his nose. All 3 responding officers have been placed on administrative leave.

I’ve argued since the beginning that the singular focus on United has given the airport police force — which caused the actual injuries — too much of a pass. If the officers hadn’t caused the passenger injuries this wouldn’t be a story, and they deserve their fair share of blame.

Government Protection for the Airlines

United hasn’t offered more voluntary compensation because if passengers aren’t willing to take $800 in travel credit and a hotel night (much lower amounts usual generate more than enough takers), they could always just involuntarily bump passengers and they won’t owe more than four times the one way fare of the passenger — capped at $1350 but frequently less (and in some cases the formula and cap are lower, or even nothing at all).

DOT regulations have acted as a price ceiling. And it’s very difficult to sue an airline for anything other than explicit violation of its own contract of carriage.

Yes, an airline ‘ought’ to want to avoid situations like this one and generate good will and that should be worth more compensation. Delta is already increasing flexibility of agents to do just that.

However situations like this don’t come up very often and simply hadn’t been fully taken into the equation. United acted the way their procedures dictate, and they’d argue consistent with DOT rules and their contract of carriage.

There have been plenty of arguments about that, and ultimately the Department of Transportation answers to politicians and juries may be angry enough that findings could side with the customer. But United’s legal position isn’t clearly wrong.

The Most Controversial: Passenger Should Have Gotten Off the Plane

I don’t expect the passenger to know in the moment whether the insistence that he leave the aircraft was a valid legal order or not. He certainly felt it wasn’t fair that he was being ordered to get off the plane and it was awful for him.

Since it does offend a certain fundamental sense of fairness people feel, he’s being treated as something of a civil rights hero, speaking truth to power and expressing a collective frustration with airlines.

I don’t think it’s ‘blaming the victim’ to say that while United created the situation and the police responded with excessive force, that it’s a good guess you’re better off backing down in the face of three responding officers. To be clear: the man did not break his own teeth, the police did that, and it was neither necessary nor appropriate. However I do think he should have gotten off the aircraft when ordered to do so.

Flights cancel and passengers get stranded and the best thing to do is take the next best solution into your own hands, if he had taken his $1000 cash compensation and spent four and a half hours in a $300 Uber (driving would likely have been cheaper but let’s assume he’d be too tired) he would have been exhausted and maybe in no position to work the next day but he’d still be better off, leaving aside any potential settlement he’s likely to receive for the incident.

It’s fine to say that someone else could have taken Uber too, but sometimes travel and life sucks and you do the best you can.

How to Prevent This From Happening Again

Involuntary denied boardings are rare, about 46,000 a year for the major US airlines and down about 70% since deregulation. They’ve continued to fall even as planes have been more full in recent years.

Airlines are already announcing new policies. Delta gives their staff more discretion to offer compensation. American says they won’t take passengers off the plane that have already boarded. And United won’t call the cops anymore… maybe.

Overbooking isn’t the problem and shouldn’t be banned. Customers change plans, and in most cases don’t forfeit the full value of their ticket when they do. Overbooking — which wasn’t even the situation here — ensures more passengers wind up in seats. That means the cost per passenger is lower and ultimately ticket prices are lower. End the practice and ticket prices will rise. You may feel that’s desirable but recognize that it redistributes wealth from less well off passengers to more well off passengers.

Airlines need to continue to get better managing denied boarding situations. Delta does a good job not just soliciting volunteers at check-in but also taking bids for volunteer compensation which keeps its costs down. And now they may spend more money in limited cases where they’re not getting volunteers now. Over time airlines may get better at managing bidding situations at the gate. The key consideration is that every idea for how to make things work better has to factor in time which is the most precious commodity as an airline tries to get planes out — ensuring the plane doesn’t miss its takeoff window and crew don’t exceed their maximum duty hours, and also that delays to one flight don’t cascade downline to other flights as well.

Airlines have learned there’s a difference — to customers — between bumping passengers that have already boarded and doing it prior to boarding. Whether there’s a moral difference or legal difference, it’s clear that the public feels the two situations are very different. American has said they will not bump passengers that have already boarded, and an internal United memo suggests they will not bump passengers who have already boarded in favor of employees. As rare as involuntary denied boardings are, involuntary denied boardings after passengers are seated are even more rare, so these are fairly low cost commitments to make.

Airline ‘customer service’ culture needs to de-militarize. In the years since 9/11 disagreements at the airport or on a plane are more often treated as potential disturbances and security threats. Airlines call the police on customers, or more frequently threaten to. That’s a dangerous byproduct of the security environment, it didn’t happen intentionally, but this incident makes crystal clear that the wrong first reaction is calling the police, and the wrong reaction to the police is to serve as an airline’s private security force.

United’s CEO Oscar Munoz says his airline will no longer call police in a similar situation — unless safety or security is involved and of course that’s left to the judgment of the individual employees, the same employees who called the cops this time. There needs to be greater clarity of what situations require the cops, the police shouldn’t be treated as an airline’s private security or enforcement team. And there should be training of employees on this new point of view, not just at United but other airlines as well.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. So sick of hearing about this man child who could not respond correctly to lawman’s requests. I hope he gets nothing in lawsuit…

  2. You are right to put some responsibility on the passenger – his refusal to respond to both the airline and law enforcement representative’s request to disembark were wrong.

    And his public record history shows a pattern of anti-social problems with authority.

  3. Most balanced summary of a situation that shouldn’t have become such a big deal, just like leggings-gate.

    Most ridiculous is the outrage in china because they assumed Dao is chinese and that United is racist against chinese. what do they think now?

  4. @larry @Greg — if you are not United shills, you have either slept your way through high school history courses, or you are severely lacking in empathy. Your posts are variations of “if he’d complied he would not have gotten hurt.”

    @steve — an eyewitness account indicated Dao referred to himself being Chinese. Either way, Chinese is not a race — Asian is. Also, either way, when black unarmed teens were killed by police, did people from Ghana say “well he’s from Chad so we don’t care”?

    @Gary Leff — just thought I would put out there that I disagree with the notion the passenger should have complied, or is to blame at all.

  5. As someone explained Republic’s policy earlier, and the airline has failed to explain. The 4 employees may not have been needed to work a flight. Apparently, Republic’s contract with their flight crew allows deadheading crew to take any flight to their destination, so that when they arrive earlier at the gate, they can demand to be put on an earlier flight. This might explain the nature of the last minute request.

    Yes. The passenger should have left when requested. But United also hasn’t indicated how the passenger was selected. Was he just that “Asian man” who would be expected to be compliant? Had he been slighted earlier in the day and just decided that he wasn’t going to take it anymore?

    Many of your commenters inevitably respond from a white privilege point of view, but we’ve never seen a video of a pleasant but insistent white man being dragged and bloodied off an airplane.

    Finally, the DoT limitation on involuntary denied boarding compensation limits airline liability, it does not limit how much an airline can offer for “volunteers”. United’s poor business practices and tightfisted policies make it easier to deny boarding.

  6. And Rosa Parks should have given up her seat on the bus…. please.

    He had a valid boarding pass, assigned seat and broke no laws. No other passenger was asked off the plane. There was no mechanical issue. The flight was not cancelled. To say “things happen” dismissed the fact that he was arbitrarily (and perhaps discriminatorily based on his fare class or other unknown reasons which he and we the public should have a right to know) chosen and then excessive unlawful force was used against him. He did the write thing to not give into arbitrary unlawfulness. Your analysis is wrong.

  7. Just want to mention the one point that you made that was totally invalid. United did not offer anyone $1,000 bucks. They merely offered $800 in travel voucher that in my experience have had problems using due to the various restrictions they place on it. Had it been $800 cash, maybe there would have been volunteers. Also, the same weekend this happened, a story came out how Delta gave away $11,000 in bumps to a family of 3 on 3 successive flights.

  8. @Playalaguna the crew were being sent to work a flight, they weren’t arbitrarily demanding to be placed on the flight.

    And the mechanism for selecting Dr. Dao was not that he was an Asian man, he was bumped based on the priority order displayed to the agent in the computer based on fare paid, elite status, and time of check-in. I am not going to speculate or argue against an assertion that race somehow played into his altercation with the Chicago Aviation Police, however.

  9. But he did break the law. Contact of carriage allows for involuntary denied boarding. He refused to move, and he therefore broke the law. His fault for not complying.

    Are you all okay with people robbing banks to feed their destitute families? NO. It’s sad, but it’s not okay.

    Where I think indignation is valid: the rules themselves. Let’s focus our anger and energy on getting the laws/rules changed. We also have the freedom to choose to fly other airlines.

    The “Rosa Parks” analogy is so offensive here -slightly “Spicer-esque,” if you ask me. Here was a woman fighting systematic, government sanctioned racism versus this creepy asshole who didn’t want to follow a contractual agreement into which he entered freely: the contract of carriage.

  10. Rosa Parks? I don’t remember reading anything about Rosa using her prescription pad to trade illegal painkillers for gay sex. Of course, Dr. Dao will have plenty of cash going forward to fulfill his needs without writing prescriptions.

    Although not fully clear to me, it seems the current law gave United/Republic the right to make him exit the plane. As such, how do you remove someone from an airplane seat – against their will – without using considerable force ?

    @Gary – realizing the backlash against any travel blogger that doesn’t jump on the bandwagon of “all businesses are bad and just want to hurt people and take their money” , I appreciate your attempt to get readers to realize that Dr. Dao should have done as he was asked. This isn’t a segregation/racism situation.

  11. Unless you are a United insider or privy to private United info, the airline has not stated it needed the crew to work a flight the following day.

    “Random” can have many different interpretations as well as degrees of randomness. The airline has not shared how random the selection may have been.

    So once again unless you are privy to info that is not being shared publicly, you continue to sound more like a United apologist.

    I don’t think we will ever know the “facts” of this case because United will not permit this to go trial. In the meantime, it has highlighted the airlines” ability to strong arm their passengers, override their contract of carriage and negate any semblance of customer service.

  12. First, @ Gary – “Customers change plans, and in most cases don’t forfeit the full value of their ticket when they do. ” But what about entirely non-refundable tickets? Again, the contract is entirely in the airline’s favor. They can cancel your ticket or flight, but you can’t. It seems unfair.

    Second, I do agree that the police has WAY too much of a pass on this episode, but the airline’s culture in engaging with customers is so utterly toxic, that the blame fell to them. Police get blamed all the time by people of color for their ridiculously out of control behavior, and white people defend the police. This scenario is little different.

    Third, and to that end, the argument saying “this guy should have done as he was told” and therefore somehow deserves what happened to him is, I will bet you, entirely one made by white people. Because we, as white people, haven’t been harassed by police on the street for just standing there, stopped and frisked illegally in New York City because you’re black or Latino, followed by security guards in department stores who mark you as a thief on entering the store, or in the myriad of ways that the legal and justice system fails so many people (of color and poor people) on a daily basis. While the race of Dao may have played no part in this episode, the ability to judge him as a non-compliant trouble maker is pretty pathetic, and – again – I’ll bet only made by white people.

    This guy’s resistance will do more good for the airline consumer than anything else in the past ten years. And, thanks to him, it’ll probably never happen to YOU.

  13. And quit refering to “white people.”

    I am not “white people”, I am Norwegian-American.

    It borders on racism when you put all “white people” in that tone of voice.

    And white votes matter too !!

    Do you’all see how silly most of these comments are?

  14. If you had written this a day or two after this occurred, I would have marveled at your insight. You are a genuine expert, and I think you initially got caught up explaining the intricate details of COC, IDB, VDB. You are now catching up to public opinion – fair enough.

    I’m opposed to social media “lynch mobs, where a person’s career and/or life is ruined in 24 hours after, for example, one misinterpreted comment. IMHO this situation was different.

    I’m also very much a free market advocate, but I’ve long recognized that US airlines enjoy an oligopoly. Any illusions I might have had were shattered at the outcome of the US Million Mike Flyer case. The airlines hold most of the power and the federal government is their enabler.

    We happened to be en route to China from Europe as the egg really hit the fan. I watched your BBC interview on BA Club World flying LHR-HKG. You were all about the details and that’s understandable.

    We listened to tablemates discussing it at HKG in The Wing Lounge, then read the extensive coverage in the South China Morning Post on board our HKG-CTU flight.

    Once arrived at CTU, we flipped on our hotel-room TV and watched a four-person panel discuss it at length.

    Even on an evening food tour the next day, our guide brought it up to us and expressed her shock as she walked us back to our subway station. I was at least able to explain that even the passenger’s lawyer denied it was an instance of racism.

    To that extent, but no more, I defended UA. Would it have gone better for UA if the computer had picked out, say, an African American or Hispanic passenger?

    I think not, but it’s probably as unfortunate for UA in its Asian market as in its domestic market – maybe more. From my anecdotal perspective, this blew into a BIG deal in Asia, and it’s not yet over.

    I’ve thought from the beginning that I never would have done what this passenger did. Everyone decides for himself or herself the extent to which he’s a martyr, a victim, or the author of his own misfortune.

    I don’t, however, think it’s appropriate to call him crude names, as has occurred above.

    No, he’s no Rosa Parks, but not everybody who gets involved in significant incidents is a saintly person.

    I actually lived through the 60s, unlike many of your readers. Look up the dirt J. Edgar Hoover supposedly had on Dr. Martin Luther King’s extramarital affairs and the alleged anonymous letter from FBI channels urging him to commit suicide.

    Even if any of it were true, that does not detract from Dr. King’s message or the movement he started. I’m only comparing the passenger to Dr. King in this very limited regard, one that applies to many historical figures.

    In summary, I’m hopeful that something good comes from this, but I’m realistic too.

    I respectfully suggest that those continuing to argue over the arcane details are missing the big mad-as-hell-and not-going-to-take-it-anymore picture.

  15. @Fredd @Jason @Playalaguna — exactly right.

    The more Gary continues to harp on “Why didn’t he just leave…” the more he sounds like a privileged corporate apologist. Just. doesn’t. get. It.

    And for those confused, you can be from Vietnam and still be Chinese…

  16. @Guyguyguy – no, he did not break the law by not complying with a Carriage of contract (if that were the case, it would be violating a contract, which is civil in nature.). But…that assumes UA acted within their right and didn’t violate the CoC (IDB is argued poorly by most, and the legal reviews are nearly all pointing to Rule 22, refusal of transport, which supports UA in no way for this particular situation.)

    Let’s make sure we are clear on “breaking the law” versus a contract dispute and excessive response, as well as facts and interpretations (IDB v RoT).

  17. I was with you until you stated… “However I do think he should have gotten off the aircraft when ordered to do so.”

    This was not a safety or security issue, so why should he get off when ordered to do so ??

    If crew do not like the color of your hat, and order you off .. are you seriously suggesting that they should have that power

    Too many commentators are trying to put blame of some sort on the passenger. His past history has absolutely nothing to do with the event here and it is wrong of people to try and link it.

    No matter which way it is dressed up, the bottom line is that this man made a contract with United when he purchased a ticket, He did nothing wrong, he fulfilled his part of the contract.

    Airlines need to be held accountable for oversold seats or crews out of position. Making the paying passenger suffer is wrong.

    Clearly, United did not offer near enough compensation to tempt people to offer up their seats and this in effect is at the root of the problem.

    A miserable Airline offering miserable compensation to discommode a passenger who had no input into the situation he found himself in

  18. To add to the good points made subsequent to my own post, let’s delve into the reductio ad absurdum.

    May we expect a ruling from the experts, the airlines, the Feds, and/or the courts as to WHEN (or IF) my seat on a flight is actually guaranteed? When will I know for sure I won’t be off-loaded?

    For example, is the airline allowed to return the plane to the airport after takeoff if it determines seats are needed for employees? If so, let’s have a ruling as to how far the plane is allowed to fly and still return.

    Please understand that, for most non-experts, once you’re “boarded” and in your seat with your carry-one stowed, you’re “boarded.”

    While that may seem naïve to the experts, to most customers generally unhappy about their flying experiences from TSA line to overcrowded planes, to the generally dismal aspects of the experience, it’s all part of a continuum. This incident between UA and the doctor, be he martyr, victim, author of his own misfortune, or some of each, is proving to be a cathartic and catalytic last straw for the public.

    The “race” issue adds one more layer of complexity.

    It will be interesting to see if anything positive (or negative) results in the long term. There’s no question in the short term that the majors appear to be changing policies and caving right and left.

  19. Gary – From one white guy to another, may I suggest that it’s not a great idea for you to be making assertions about who may or may not be analogous to a historic civil rights leader.

    You’ll lose that one every time. It’s not about “privilege” or other loaded terms, it’s about not making stupid racial non sequiturs in an argument. See, e.g., the video of CNN commentator Jeffrey Lord trying to defend calling President Trump the MLK of health care. It didn’t end well for him, and whatever grain of truth may have been there was completely lost in the noise.

    Take it from somebody who was a campus Republican in college in Berkeley, nothing good comes from you wading into this.

  20. None of this would have happened if the passenger had simply left when he was told. He inconvenienced an entire plane. The rules and laws are simple. It’s basically resisting arrest.

  21. @Greg I feel 100% comfortable suggesting that there wasn’t gate agent racism motivating choice of whom to bump involuntarily since it was based on the priority list in the computer which matches the contract of carriage (fare, status, time of checkin). I have chosen not to wade into the discussion of whether asian men are over or underrepresented among higher fares and airline elite status, I don’t have that demographic data.

    And I’ve said explicitly I am not in a position to weigh in on the officers’ behavior and the extent to which is would have been different with a non-Asian passenger. That would be baseless speculation given the video that’s available as well as public comments by other customers.

    Given what we do know about this situation there’s simply no warrant for the claim that Dr. Dao is in some meaningful way comparable to Rosa Parks in not giving up his seat on the plane. And I’m comfortable saying that ‘even though I’m (Jewish) white.’

  22. Andy, none of this would have happened if united tried harder to get voluntary passengers to get of the plane. For the right price, or even clarification of the terms of the travel voucher, no one would’ve been assulted and dragged off the plane.

    And Gary, maybe he won’t go down as an American civil rights hero as Rosa Parks did, but what happened to Dr. Doa might just change how US carriers treat passengers especially their policy on involuntary denied boarding in the future.

  23. Here’s another ingredient to add …. As most US airlines offer not cash but vouchers, supposed the regional flight was full of European holiday makers visiting for say, 2 weeks.. the vouchers are worthless to those passengers.
    So the Airlines need to review this and start offering cash

  24. This and all of the other malfeasance perpetrated on the American travelling public is a result of airlines having been allowed to become too big. United (and the rest) do what they do because they can, much of which comes as a result of market power which exceeds that needed to operate a viable business.

    So what actually what needs to happen here to kill off the root cause of the problem is that United needs to be broken up into airlines that might still make a profit (if well managed) but not so large as to be able to afford to be discourteous to customers.

    And yes, in doing that I’d expect the various segments of United would eventually be absorbed by the remainder of the oligopoly, but I’d make it very explicit that any hint of this kind of behavior will lead to the break up of the next airline so poorly familiar with where it’s bread is buttered.

  25. I agree with most of this analysis except for the notion that government policies on denied boarding compensation somehow incentivized or constrained United in what it would offer to volunteers who agreed to take a later flight. First of all, as pointed out by others above, the “liability” limit in no way constrains United from offering passengers additional incentives to de-plane, for the purpose of remaining on good terms with its customers. But more importantly, in this instance, the compensation offered by gate agents came _no where near_ that regulatory maximum: $800 worth of vouchers (with a 1-year expiration) vs possibly up to $1300 in CASH. If United wanted a speedier and ultimately successful volunteer process, _especially_ when they knew that the alternative was likely to be involuntary denied boarding, what kept them from immediately offering cash in that scenario? Either bad judgment on the part of the gate agents, or bad policy on the part of United. In fact, given the time crunch and the fact that they needed to address their own staffing problem, they could have immediately offered the equivalent of the maximum payout for involuntary boarding, rather than running a penny-pinching auction. Let’s not blame consumer protection regulations for this one — the ball in squarely in United’s court for either underestimating or simply not caring about the extent to which their last-minute staffing problem would be inconveniencing their (already-delayed) paying customers on the flight.

  26. Well agree with most of it, but not as much w/the passenger being at fault for not leaving. After all, your points are interrelated:

    –It is reasonable to protest being involuntarily chosen to leave a plane already boarded. As a lay person, I’ve never seen that scenario, and it would seem esp odd after being asked for volunteers, that then they will start involuntarily removing chosen people. I’m with Dao on that one, and would have stood my ground and debated with them.
    –And look… you article says that United has CHANGED its policies on this, as have other airlines. He certainly had a point and many customers would have/do agree with him. So… maybe the airline’s policy is not correct. And indeed, they have CHANGED their policy now, which gives credibility to this. Are you saying that Dao SHOULDN’T have challenged this policy, which days later, were changed by United and several carriers to exactly what he was arguing for?
    –I have always said that if United wanted to strong-arm Dao, they could have asked Chicago Police to arrest Dao. AFTER arresting Dao and if he refuses arrest, I think a physical response would be more acceptable. Not great, but more acceptable. The only acceptable situation for an urgent violent response by Aviation Police is if Dao was physically violent or had threatened physical violence. That did not occur by all accounts. And that may have possibly been United’s fault if they misportrayed the situation to the Chicago Aviation Police as being something that required an urgent violent response.

    Now here is the flaw in one of your arguments. You think Dao risked physical harm on himself by resisting the crew’s orders? Well, have you considered this scenario? What if everyone did their jobs correctly? What if Chicago Aviation Police didn’t use force on Dao and called Chicago Police to come arrest him? Then what if Chicago Police arrested him and then he WILLINGLY went with them to jail without a physical confrontation. In the video, he SAYS he is willing to go to jail as the alternative. I don’t think Dao, nor most people, would expect Chicago Aviation Police to physically grab him out of his seat. It’s not clear it was legal for them to do so. There was no violent situation going on. They don’t have the power to arrest. If the actual police came and arrested him and read his Miranda rights, one could argue that he then would have complied and walked off peacefully. Barring an arrest, one might think you could keep debating w/the officers and crew. I don’t find that to be an unreasonable assertion, esp since he was calm and only verbally refusing, and wasn’t engaged in any violent behavior whatsoever. So it is a premature assumption to state that he could have prevented the violent response by complying. He also might have never received a violent response if the Chicago Aviation police and United Airlines were doing their jobs correctly, and he could have peacefully continued protesting and accepting arrest/jail.

    –As much as you might want to say that the passenger might have helped the situation if he just complied, that is the only thing you can think of for him that he could have done better on. United Airlines, however, has 100 ways it could have done better on. Here is a partial list:
    –Increased compensation. Again, I read somewhere this might have to do with the limitations of the SHARE computer, ever since their merger w/Continental. Fine, so who was the executive who authorized such difficult policy for their crew to carry out, and made it so difficult to offer increased compensation?
    –Seat the one additional crew member elsewhere on the plane. Others have suggested where this might be.
    –Put the crew on a different flight, delay their arrival, Uber, even if it delays/cancels that flight. After all, this was a very last-minute request. These steps will also need to be scrutinized, and need to see if any employees or policymakers need to lose their jobs over handling this poorly or coming up with poor policy. I have read that this might have something to do w/the contracts they have w/Republic. Fine, so who came up w/this contract with them, that puts passengers at such a disadvantage? And who approved these contract terms that don’t take the customer experience into consideration? Who authorized passengers to be bumped so late, after boarding and in their seats?
    –Who didn’t come up with a better solution, when the passenger explained calmly why he was not going to cooperate with involuntary removal from the flight/denied boarding after being seated? Who insisted that law enforcement be used, speaking to Gary’s point which I agree with should be used less and less of an option? Who contacted law enforcement and most importantly, WHAT EXACTLY DID THEY SAY? How did they describe the situation? Did United mislead Chicago Aviation Police to believe that an urgent physical response was needed?
    –Where are the pilots and people who run the plane? Did the pilots assess the situation or even talk to Dao? What is the policy of how pilots and crew are involved in a situation like this? Who came up with these policies or are these policies largely absent? You would think that the pilots and FA and crew should all be in agreement before contacting law enforcement, or at the very least, the decision is run up the tree of command.
    –OK, AFTER law enforcement arrives– where are the crew and pilots? Are they watching to see what happens? The airlines should realize that anything negative that comes from this interaction w/law enforcement could potentially damage their reputation and trust from customers, so it would be wise to make sure the pilots and crew are still actively involved even after they arrive. Law enforcement is there at United’s beckoning. They could also leave as quickly as they came, if the crew from United suddenly said to forget about it. Who wrote the policy for how these interactions are to occur (airline-law enforcement)? Or is there a lack of policy there?
    –Ideally, the pilots would be watching what happens and intervene when things are not occurring correctly. In this situation, why don’t the pilots or crew say something when there is blood dripping down his face almost immediately, or when he is unconscious? Where is the leadership? It would only take one wise crew member to notice, like all the passengers were noticing, that he was unconscious. Why didn’t somebody from United tell Aviation Police– hey he’s unconscious, put him down, let’s get medical here– I mean, what if he had a stroke or heart attack and needed CPR? The aviation police guy can’t see what’s going on. You’re telling me that everyone in charge implicitly allowed him to be dragged down the aisle unconscious, and nobody thought that was dangerous? Where are people’s brains?

    And this is only a partial list. United had many places it could have made the situation better. It certainly bears the brunt of the responsibility, as it well should.

  27. @Gary – Glad you posted this. Thank you.

    I think the central question you raise is “are you obligated to follow even unlawful orders from flight crew and/or law enforcement officers?”

    The trouble is that in the US legal system, you cannot find out the answer to that question without resisting. There has to be damage for an individual to have standing to sue. You should know this, Gary, as you also read Papers, Please. If Dr. Dao wanted to test the legal limits of airline and Aviation Police authority, this is pretty much the only way he could do it. In a sick way, he’s fortunate to have been beaten and have very clear standing to sue.

    All that leads to the Rosa Parks comment. This reference is obviously inappropriate, but I believe the best form of the argument is that Rosa Parks *had* to refuse to move in order to secure her rights, much as Dr. Dao had to refuse to move to secure his standing to sue. That’s not an unfair point to make, but a poor way of making it by the commenter.

    Just to be clear, I appreciate the conversation here, Gary!

  28. @jamesb2147 — I think there is a serious problem in aviation culture with airlines turning customer service problems over to law enforcement (and law enforcement going along, and in this case escalating).

    However I just don’t think the issues at stake at the point where Dr. Dao refused to give up his seat when instructed by airline employees to do so (before police responded, mind you) to rise to the level of issues at stake when Rosa Park wouldn’t give up her seat on a bus where she was resisting racial segregation and even segregation enforced by law.

  29. Enough time has lapsed to unequivocally say United messed up. Any defense of United is silly–including but not limited to the law and order folks out there blaming the victim for United’s idiocy. This is on United. It’s indefensible….

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