United Airline's Brutal Version of "Re-Accommodating" Passengers Isn't Going Over So Well
The dystopian video of Chicago aviation cops viciously ripping a 69-year-old doctor out of his seat on an overbooked United flight, slamming his head on an armrest and hauling his limp, bloodied, evidently unconscious body down the aisle like a bag of trash has sparked widespread fury, as did the company's tone-deaf, blame-the-victim response to what they delicately called "the situation." The assault - let's call it what it was - began Sunday night on a Chicago to Louisville flight, when the airline said they had to clear four passengers off the plane to make room for United employees. Dr. David Dao, a Vietnamese-American internist and one of a six-doctor family - four of his five kids and his wife, a pediatrician - refused to give up his seat, explaining he was due to see patients the next day. Airline staff called out the cops, because Amurica. As they dragged him out, appalled passengers shrieked, cried, yelled "Oh my God!" and, yes, filmed the debacle. They also filmed the dazed bloody doctor stumbling back in, mumbling "just kill me."
When the video started circulating, United C.E.O. Oscar Munoz, who just inexplicably received an award for “Communicator of the Year,” issued what one observer called "the least human-sounding statement in crisis-PR history," non-apologizing for "the overbooking situation" and - Euphemism of the Year alert! - "having to re-accommodate these customers," evidently having missed the part where surly cops carted a bleeding older man off their plane after beating him up. Chicago police, being Chicago police, helpfully added hey too bad the guy cut open his face when "he fell" on that armrest. When the uproar persisted, Munoz doubled down with two more I-just-can't-stop-myself statements: Dao was "disruptive and belligerent" and "defied" the cops, staff treated him "politely" and were "left with no choice," there are "lessons we can learn" but he commends his team "for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right."
Public vengeance was swift. United stocks plunged, in a few hours posting losses of over a billion dollars - or, as one tweet noted, "The stock market re-accommodated United Airlines. Its head subsequently struck an armrest, causing injuries to its face." Social media took up the cause, lambasting United's ill-timed launch of a new "drag and drop" app feature, proposing United take on the task of dealing with Assad, and suggesting #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos: "We put the hospital in hospitality...We run our airline like Republicans run America...When we say jump, you say how high...Our prices are unbeatable but not our customers..." Boycott calls spread so loudly that Munoz finally seemed to get it. On his last relatively humane try, he simply apologized, declared, "No one should ever be mistreated this way," and vowed, "We will fix this," adding, "It's never too late to do the right thing." That remains to be seen: A petition demanding his resignation has garnered over 35,000 signatures.
The "re-accommodation heard round the world," writes Derek Thompson, is also a metaphor "both freakish and representative" for the often-abusive, increasingly unregulated power wielded by big companies, with the bloodying of Dr. Dao highlighting a "profoundly unequal, and even morally scandalous, relationship between consumers and corporations in industries where a handful of large companies dominate." Critics charge that the carnage by United, which seems to have forgotten they're carrying "human beings, not auto parts," is a dangerous sign of that inequity. So, too, are airlines' arcane, protective "contracts of carriage" - United's is 37,000 words long - that allow them to break their most basic responsibility to consumers - you get what you pay for and don't get beat up in the process - without any legal ramifications. "The video is a scandal," notes Thompson. "But so is the law."