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Image Courtesy of Unilad.co.uk

More than a half-century after United Airlines launched its famous slogan “Fly the Friendly Skies,” the giant airliner has become a paradox on how to treat its passengers properly. After the recent brutal and bloody removal of Vietnamese doctor David Dao, a paying passenger who had confirmed booking and seat, to accommodate its non-paying flight crew, United can no longer claim the promise to fly its passengers in friendly skies.

The inhumane treatment of Dao, who was already seated on his confirmed seat beside his wife when asked to leave the plane, seems to validate JD Powers’s customer-satisfaction survey that showed in 2016 that United Airlines, who since its merger with Continental Airlines has become the world’s largest airline, has also become one of the world’s worst airlines in terms of services. The JD Powers survey showed that only the budget airline Frontier had a worse score than United.

Dao was bodily dragged by Chicago policemen, who had been summoned by United managers to help evict the Vietnamese doctor, resulting in bloodied nose, concussions and lost teeth, according to Dao’s lawyers.

Unfortunately for United, passengers now have cell phones with camera that can record such inhuman incidents unlike in 1965, when it first claimed to be the “friendly skies.” The videos from some of those cell phones went viral and were seen by millions of potential United passengers all over the world, sparking outrage that were read and seen in social media, in newspapers, on television, on radio and all other media.

United Chairman and CEO Oscar Munoz poured oil into the fire when, in an attempt to justify Dao’s brutal removal and control the PR nightmare that the incident has brought about, he wrote in an in-house email that the action was justified because Dao had become “disruptive” and “belligerent” when asked to vacate his seat. The email was leaked, sparking even more outrage and demand for boycott of the airlines.

Nothing can justify the brutality with which United evicted a paying, quietly seated passenger — even if the passenger had become “belligerent.” Who wouldn’t be angry if told that he had to vacate the seat that airline check-in personnel had confirmed for him and in which he is seated comfortably waiting for the plane to take off? After all, his ticket had been processed by a ticket agent, checked in by airline personnel, and allowed to sit by the flight attendant to his assigned seat.

Even if airlines are allowed to overbook, they still need to make sure the procedure would be done properly and not to the detriment of paying passengers, that removal is voluntary on the part of the passengers, and it is done before passengers board the plane. Why didn’t they ask for volunteers earlier in the pre-boarding area? Why did they have to sacrifice paying passengers in favor of their own non-paying personnel? If the crew needed to be in another airport for another flight, why didn’t they just hire a private plane to fly them? Why was the crew not checked in earlier if they needed to take the flight? It seems to me like it was mismanagement or lack of planning on the part of airline executives at the Chicago airport.

The incident has triggered a call from all sectors for the immediate review of the policy that allows airlines to overbook and bump passengers from flights. Overbooking has become common practice among airlines to ensure that no seats would be empty in case some passengers decided in the last minute to cancel their reservation. This is simply corporate greed to the detriment of plane passengers.

United Continental, according to aviation experts, is in the forefront of this vicious practice that has helped it make a hefty $10-billion profit in the last two years. With that amount, flying that flight crew by private plane would have been just a drop in the bucket and wouldn‘t even cause a dent in its profitability, but they would rather bodily drag a paying passenger with a confirmed booking and seat.

I’m almost certain Dao was chosen because he was an Asian American. Asians have been stereotyped as law-abiding, subservient people. United Airlines insists the four passengers that were chosen to be bumped off the flight were randomly selected. How? By a computer? By drawing lots? Or did the flight attendants select Dao because of his ethnicity?

They probably thought Dao, being an Asian American, would quietly comply with demands for him to vacate his seat and leave the plane. But the 69-year-old doctor said he needed to get home because patients were waiting for him and rightfully decided to resist any attempt to remove him.

“I have to go home! I have to go home! Just kill me. Just kill me,” Dao screamed as he was being manhandled by police and airline security.

Who was that very important person that could just take his seat, he probably thought. It turned out the four seats would be taken by a United Airlines flight crew. Whatever happened to customer first, or customer is always right? So non-paying airline personnel now have priority over paying and confirmed passengers?

There is no excuse for cruel, inhuman behavior. United must pay the price with hefty punitive and exemplary damages and must immediately start a review of its overbooking and similar policies. Or better still, plane passengers can simply avoid flying the unfriendly skies.

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