The not-so-friendly skies

Gary Brock - Contributing columnist

In a world full of “What were they thinking?” stories in the news, finally we get the ultimate, pick of the pack, top of the heap, cream of the crop, dumbest of the dumb “What were they thinking?” story.

I am referring of course to the deranged decision by employees representing United Airlines to literally drag a paying passenger out of his seat and off one of their airlines Sunday in Chicago for a flight bound for Louisville because the flight was overbooked and lacking volunteers they followed policy and selected from a “computer generated list” a non-volunteer to leave the plane.

This was Dr. David Dao. He did not go quietly into that good night.

Wasn’t (past tense noted) their motto “Fly the Friendly Skies of United”? Yes, I thought it was.

Now, I don’t know for sure, but I’d like to think that when airline personnel boarded the plane to inform passengers that, lacking four volunteers to give up their seats, four would be selected to “involuntarily” leave, our good doctor thought to himself, “Humph… if they want my seat they’ll have to drag me outta here kicking and screaming.”

And that is exactly what happened.

What. Were. They. Thinking?

It took no time for the cell phone videos to go viral. Did the airlines think no one would actually film this jaw-dropping incident? By Monday, the story was everywhere and on “social media” the outrage and derision leveled at United was scorching.

But let’s pause a moment. From the media reports I’ve read, Dao and the others were offered at least $800 each to jump ship, er, plane. Airlines overbook all the time, and United more than many. I have taken advantage of this … from United.

A couple of years ago, flying back from Tampa, my flight was overbooked and the employee at the United ticket counter asked if there were any volunteers who, for a voucher, would give up their seat for a later flight? Shoot, I was coming home. I was in no hurry. So I jumped at the chance. The voucher amounted to practically the fair for a round-trip ticket to use in the next 12 months. As it turned out, the next flight left about an hour later. Cool deal.

Last year — same thing happened. On the way home from Washington D.C. I was waiting at the terminal and the nice woman at the counter said, “Ladies and gentleman, due to the overbooking of this flight, we are asking if there are any volunt—-” and that’s as far as she got before I reached the ticket counter so fast the dust still hasn’t settled. Palm outstretched before her, I think I said something like, “I’ll take it in twenties please. Or a voucher will do… and make it a big one!” Or something to that effect.

Point is, most people don’t mind being bumped off a flight for cash and/or a voucher, especially if it is a return flight.

But this guy at O’Hare did mind. It was Sunday and he had patients to see the next morning in Louisville. According to some accounts, he had gotten his license to practice just a few years before, and if he missed appointments it might have jeopardized his practice.

He refused when the United employees went up the aisle to his seat and told him he had to take their nice offer. Period. No deal from Dao. That was when the security personnel fulfilled the “involuntary” portion of their policy. All the way down the aisle. Kicking and screaming. Out the hatch. Up the walkway. Into the terminal. But they were just following orders.

Just move along folks. No common sense to see here.

Worse, after dropping him in the terminal, he then jumped up and ran back down the walkway and back into the plane! At this point, the plane was cleared and they took him out a second time – in a stretcher.

Now if it were me, and I saw just how adamant this guy was (and perhaps he knew Kung Fu… just saying), I would have moved on the the next “involuntary” on the list and sweetened the ante some. Which they are allowed to do. I know this means that asking people to leave involuntarily kinda take the “involuntary” out of the equation. And it might be against “policy.”

But whatever. It sure beats the kind of awful PR nightmare United is facing now.

And that scorn is international. Dao, you see, is Chinese. Many people in China and the U.S. are saying the doctor was picked because he was Chinese. Chinese columnists and posters on what passes for social media there (YouTube is blocked in the People’s Republic) say Dao was selected based on the stereotype that the “nice Asian gentleman won’t put up a fuss.”

“He said, more or less, ‘I’m being selected because I’m Chinese,’” fellow passenger Tyler Bridges was quoted as saying by The Washington Post. That quote, translated into Chinese, was widely circulated on social media in China.

By early afternoon on Tuesday, the topic had attracted 85 million readers on China’s version of Twitter, and 56,000 comments, making it the top trending item of the day, according to media reports. Petitions to boycott United Airlines were also going viral on WeChat, the Chinese messaging service.

Ironically, United claims that it is the largest carrier between the United States and China. Probably not any more. I have flown to China twice in recent years, by the way, once via United and once on Delta. I liked Delta more because they fed me more. The flight is about 18 hours.

I cannot imagine how the story could have gotten worse. Wait … it got worse.

The CEO, Oscar Munoz, emailed employees Monday that the passenger was “disruptive and belligerent.” Oddly, just a few weeks ago, Munoz received the “communicator of the year” award from PRWeek, a top communications publication. Note to PRWeek: Are there do-overs?

Munoz told his workers, “One of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help. Our employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this. While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you.” Yep, you were just following orders!

He had apologized for “having to re-accommodate these customers” — I love that word, and called the incident an “upsetting event.” Yes, upsetting for anyone with stock in United. I think he had to apologize a couple more times for previous apologies by the time Wednesday rolled around.

What a mess. And one that was avoidable has anyone at O’Hare Airport’s United terminal actually stopped and thought about what they were doing. And the consequences.

Was following procedure worth this mess? Plus the likely lawsuit that the airline will surely lose, if it ever gets that far. Following established procedures can be a painful master when it leads to stepping off the cliff.

I believe every company policy manual should have a preface that says simply: “All rules and policies in the following manual can and should be trumped if the following two words do not apply — common sense.”

Gary Brock is editor of the Civitas Media publication Rural Life Today and will gladly “deplane” a flight when practically any sum of cash is waved in front of him.

Gary Brock

Contributing columnist