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The video from five years ago was shocking, almost to the point of a farcical, 'am I really seeing this?' kind of moment.
On a flight from Chicago to Louisville in 2017, United Airlines needed to fly four employees to get them positioned for the next day and asked for four volunteers to give up their seats. Unable to find anyone - even with an $800 incentive - United then used a computer program to randomly select the four fliers who would have to involuntarily leave the plane.
What happened next was an international embarrassment. When passenger Dr. David Dao refused to leave his seat, United called Chicago Department of Aviation Police, who came aboard and physically dragged Dao off the flight, causing multiple injuries as horrified passengers shrieked at the unfolding scene.
Dao later settled with United for an alleged $140 million.
But, five years later, have we learned anything?
Well, United has apparently learned its lesson when it comes to involuntary bumping of passengers. According to the aviation blog The Points Guy, the rate of involuntary denied boardings dropped by more the 96 percent between 2017 and 2021.
United was clearly chastened by the Dr. Dao incident but neither the Chicago-based carrier nor any other airline has disbanded the practice of overbooking flights.
They can't. Better to overestimate than to underestimate.
Yes, they sometimes pay customers a princely sum to voluntarily give up their seat when needed, but those times are really few and far between. The airlines are actually quite good at this - they have it down to a science in terms of projecting how many seats are going to be filled and how many passengers might be asked to voluntarily be bumped.
But has United and the industry really learned anything from the five years since a bloodied Dr. Dao was dragged off that plane?
Like anything, it depends on who you talk to.
Case in point - I wrote a column several months ago in praise of flight attendants and crew members who must bear the brunt of verbal and physical abuse from unruly passengers. I figured, well, here's one opinion piece where everybody is going to be in universal agreement.
A good amount of folks who responded, some of them frequent fliers, emailed and commented that customer service has gone downhill. While they stopped short of saying that crewmembers being on the receiving end of passenger tirades was deserved, or was somehow poetic justice, some of the respondents did make lucid, compelling arguments. They talked about a general void in customer appreciation, "snooty" crew members who treated the sky as their personal fiefdom, or having to wait hours on the phone to resolve an issue, and more.
Personally, I've never experienced that in the 30-plus years I've been flying - but I'll never say another person's opinion is necessarily wrong.
If anything, the Dr. Dao incident hopefully taught airlines more compassion. Like anything in life, flying is a barter-based business. The airlines - and grocery stores, and furniture stores, and gas stations, and restaurants, and so on - provide you a service. For that service, you pay for their work. And, well, unfortunately, the days of trading homemade tools or warm bear pelts for that service have long been over.
Dragging a man out of a small seat through a narrow aisle and causing him physical trauma is not compassion no matter what the "rules" are.
That's what I hope airlines have learned in the last five years, or should have.
Rich Thomaselli is a 33-year writing veteran of newspapers, magazines, digital publications and more. He is an 11-time writing...
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