Are We United Against United?

United Airlines
Art by Joyce Liao

On a United Airlines flight headed towards Louisville, Kentucky, from Chicago, Illinois, Dr. David Dao, a 69-year-old Vietnamese-American, was forced to deboard the plane by security officers from the Chicago Department of Aviation, on April 9, 2017, when he refused to give up his seat for United Airlines crew members on an overbooked flight, saying he had to see patients the next day. Passengers on the plane captured the moment the doctor was dragged out against his will. He eventually suffered a significant concussion, lost two front teeth, and had his nose broken. The unnecessary amount of violence used in his removal resulted in him being knocked unconscious.


The violence used by law enforcement against Dr. Dao was avoidable. It simply does not make sense to call in law enforcement when the airline manager could have handled the situation by giving Dr. Dao a voucher to another airliner for his destination, offered more than the initial $800 offer to passengers who would give up their seat, or arranged an alternative method of transportation for the airline crew — it’s a five-hour drive from Chicago to Louisville. The cost of doing so would not compare to the bad public relations United has received because of the incident.  


This incident brings to light the problematic policies of United Airlines, as well as other airlines, and the need for airlines to have better customer service.


The first issue deals with race. The amount of force used on Dr. Dao was excessive, and it is unknown if the security officers had any racial motives. This incident is symptomatic of the increase in high-profile incidents of law enforcement using excessive force on minorities when compared to their white counterparts.


The violence used against Dr. Dao sheds more light on the idea of white privilege and systematic problems in our country regarding minorities; however, it seems highly unlikely Dr. Dao was specifically targeted because of his race, especially since he was randomly chosen by an algorithm.


Dr. Dao’s attorney, Thomas Demetrio, suggests that Dr. Dao is not the Asian version of Rosa Parks, but rather a poster child for treating passengers improperly. This incident should bring more attention to United’s problematic policies, which allowed the airline to call law enforcement and ask customers to deboard, rather than to Dr. Dao’s race.


Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines, afterwards promised to make sure law enforcement isn’t called in to force passengers to deboard and to fix some of the problems brought to light by the incident. “We are not going to put a law enforcement official to take them [passengers] off,” Munoz told ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Munoz’s initial response to the incident was lackluster at best, but he gave a somewhat better apology to Dr. Dao after receiving backlash.


United has also changed its policy concerning crew bookings. The new policy states that airline crew traveling as passengers are required to book at least one hour before departure. This means that a passenger like Dr. Dao cannot be removed from a flight after he or she has boarded.


Their new policy for crew bookings is a fundamentally flawed public relations ploy. Instead of forcing passengers to deboard the plane to make room for their crew, United Airlines will be able to take their seats at the boarding gate. The one-hour difference is not significant enough to be beneficial for passengers. This policy also does not address the issue of airline crews taking seats from passengers. It does not protect United’s passengers; it protects their public relations. It also fails to recognize and address the cause of the incident, the airline crew’s need to be on passenger flights.


This policy ensures that United will not experience bad public relations disasters like this one. However, it has not done anything to fix the problems that caused the incident in the first place. United has the infrastructure and money to fix the problem of airline crews being stranded in airports and the need to book seats for the crew on passenger flights; however, it has not taken the initiative to put in place any system to fix this issue and improve customer service and its  current infrastructure. A system that could easily fix this issue is to reserve seats for airline crew and not sell those seats. United Airlines should be able to logistically track and coordinate which flights airline crew need to be on so the seats for the crew can be reserved in advance. Implementing this system will make sure passengers will not have to give up their seats.


The 2017 American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) found that United Airlines had the lowest ranking out of the four major airlines in the United States. United Airlines was found to have an increasing mishandled baggage rate, an increasing number of late flights, and a history of bad public relations incidents concerning passengers. Claes Fornell, ACSI chairman, notes, “Customer satisfaction has never appeared to be a goal for airlines. Compared to other industries, the financial return on passenger satisfaction is not much of an incentive.” This explains why airliners have neglected their passengers when formulating their policies.


This extends to the broader issue of airlines creating reactionary policies that do not impact customer service, rather than preventive policies that would solve the issues in customer service. United Airlines does not care about their passengers because they take for granted that whatever bad public relations they may receive, people will forget about it and still fly with United, especially when they offer cheap, frequent flights all over the United States. United needs to fundamentally change its approach to customer service and not take its popularity for granted. This should be a wake-up call for airlines to actually start caring about their customers and policies.


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