What's worse: being dragged off a plane or dragged through the press?

The doctor forcibly dragged off United Airlines Flight 3411 on April 9 has been identified as Dr David Dao. Unfortunately for the doctor, that’s not all we now know about him thanks to the world’s press. I’m not going to repeat the facts that have been unearthed about the doctor’s past, and I understand that even alluding to them may encourage some to google the doctor’s name to find out more. The question is, is any of this relevant? Should anything take away from the fact a fare-paying passenger was removed against his will from a flight for no other reason than the airline wanted his seat for an employee?

david-daoWhen the United Airlines staff asked Dr Dao to give up his seat, I’m sure he didn’t realise by not doing so, he was risking having his private life being picked over selectively and reported extensively; that he was risking physical harm to himself, as well as emotional distress to his wife, his children and his grandchildren who today have also been exposed to the world in photographs and articles.

United Airlines has also of course suffered – the company’s misconduct and then miscommunication has had an immediate cost to its share price and will no doubt have a longer-term impact on future sales. But it is a company; Dr Dao and his family are people, and while share prices will recover, and new markets will inevitably result in new revenue streams, Dr Dao will be marked forever by what happened on April 9. Google ‘United Airlines’ in a year’s time and all of this will appear on page 4; google ‘David Dao’ and the same headlines will probably appear as do today.

This is today’s world. A video of significant impact is posted on social media, and suddenly the race is on to find out who is involved, and then everything about them. The world’s press (among whom I counted myself many eons ago) no longer have the monopoly on breaking news; now they are reduced to having to earth out backstories that may have no relevance to the main event, but once written, will stay in their readers’ minds forever.

Instead of spending time and energy researching Dr Dao, I have yet to see any stories on why exactly the United personnel who took Dr Dao’s and three other passengers’ seats needed so badly to be on Flight 3411 to Louisville. According to FlightStats, there were two other flights from Chicago to Louisville that evening, one operated by American Airlines one hour later at 6:40 pm, the other also operated by United at 9:00 pm.

United initially said Flight 3411 had been overbooked, but today amended its version of events to say the seating issue was because it needed the crew members to be in Louisville on Monday for a ‘downline connection’. According to the airline, they were considered ‘must-ride’ passengers, carrying more importance than fare-paying ones, obviously. But does this admission call into question United’s removal of the passengers based on its contract of carriage relating to overbooking? Do the same rules apply when it is a operational miscalculation by the airline itself?

And why did the airline not continue to raise the compensation on offer to passengers if they volunteered their seat? Other passengers have said United was offering $800, the airline itself said the amount was up to $1,000. There would have inevitably been a point when passengers changed their mind, and no matter how high that price might have been, it would have been insignificant compared with the cost facing the airline now to its balance sheet and reputation. Compare instead Delta’s approach as chronicled this week by travel editor Laura Begley Bloom on Forbes.com, when after being caught up in the recent storms, her family eventually decided to cancel their trip to Florida in return for $11,000.

I’m sincerely hoping the four unidentified United employees who made it onto Flight 3411 took off from Louisville Monday morning, and escaped all the furor. They were of course only doing their job. Dr Dao however, who stayed in his seat exactly because he wanted to do his the next day, was not so fortunate. For that he can blame both United management and the world’s press, who while also only doing their jobs, failed to do them well.

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