“Fastest settlement ever.”
That’s what people all over social media are saying about the confidential settlement announced by the lawyers of David Dao, the doctor who was dragged from a Louisville-bound United flight after refusing to give up his seat for flight crew. The settlement was reached less than three weeks after Dao’s violent ejection from a United flight.
Dao’s brutal removal from the plane was painful to watch, and the shocking footage of the treatment he received at the request of the flight crew and the hands of Chicago officers caused widespread outrage.
The exceptional quality of Dao’s case made it a prime candidate for a quick settlement. His lawyers said that Dao suffered significant physical injuries, including a broken nose, two lost teeth and a concussion. He was humiliated and his professional reputation was undoubtedly harmed. And all of that was captured on video. We can speculate all day about the dollar value of his settlement, but one word comes to mind: big.
In settling the case, Dao’s lawyers had to act in the best interest of their client, who understandably may have wanted to put this ordeal behind him. United had already publicly accepted responsibility for the fiasco, and the airline certainly wanted to put an end to its weeks-long public relations disaster.
But those of us who come to the aid of aggrieved passengers had hoped that the Dao case might spur the trial of the century. We desperately need the airline industry to answer tough questions about abuses of power in order to end an unfettered pattern of passenger bullying.
United bore the brunt of this public relations fiasco, but the problem is industry-wide. Flight crew members rely on law enforcement to assist when safety and security problems arise. But employees of all U.S. airlines — not just United — routinely call law enforcement for all sorts of customer service failures. After the United incident, other caught-on-camera aircraft oustings captured headlines, like the mom whose stroller was snatched by an American Airlines flight attendant, or the passenger who needed to use the restroom during a tarmac delay on Delta.
United has announced several policy changes as a result of its self-examination following the Dao case. Among other promises, it says it will increase financial incentives to passengers who give up their seats voluntarily on oversold flights. Delta has also promised to do the same, and Southwest has vowed to end overbooking altogether beginning this summer.
But this isn’t just an overbooking problem. Passengers are threatened with jail time for all sorts of alleged misconduct, like complaining about a delay or asking for a different soda. Passengers are sometimes told they are banned by the airline or even an entire global alliance of airlines, as a result of a failure to comply with flight crew whims. Passengers who fail to sit obediently in their seats have been accused of assault (which by definition does not necessarily involve any physical contact); They’ve been called belligerent, disruptive and unruly. All of this makes them subject to ejection, and if they’re really unlucky, they may face civil fines from the FAA and criminal prosecution.
United, and the entire airline industry, needs to come clean about its law enforcement culture. A Senate subcommittee demanded answers from United about the Dao ejection, but so far, its responses leave something to be desired. United says it will no longer call law enforcement unless there is a genuine safety or security issue. It’s also unclear whether United’s big promises are an attempt to avoid formal DOT regulation.
In discussing its “low point” with NBC News, United CEO Oscar Munoz mused, “You forget sometimes that the people you’re carrying are human and have interests and have desires.”
In this day and age, passengers boarding commercial aircraft are not there for the airline experience. They are human, and as such deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Dao may have been paid a hefty sum to end his case, and as a result some of United’s systemic weaknesses may go unacknowledged. Whether United policy changes and possible regulation can alter corporate culture remains to be seen. One thing is sure: Abuses at the expense of paying passengers must come to an end.