As United Airlines struggled Tuesday to explain the forced “re-accommodation” of a doctor on a flight out of Chicago, the human element kept bobbing to the surface, like crash debris.
The doctor had been bumped Sunday so that more passengers wouldn’t be stranded; space needed to be made for four off-duty United crew members without whom a plane out of Louisville, Ky., couldn’t take off the next morning.
The airline had offered up to $800 to anyone who would give up a seat, but there had been no takers. The other three passengers booted at random complied without complaint.
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Only Dr. David Dao, 69, had refused, insisting he had patients to see back in Kentucky. And only when he raised his voice and wondered about racism, the airline said, did crew members call security officers from the Chicago Department of Aviation.
It was those security officers, not United, who had yanked the screaming doctor out of his seat and dragged him – mouth bloody, glasses askew – down the aisle of the airplane. One officer is now on leave, pending an internal inquiry.
Still. Passengers were rightfully outraged. So was the public as United retreated into corporate-speak, apologizing in a statement for “having to re-accommodate” Dao due to an “overbook situation.”
Even Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr was moved to speak. Carr took a screenshot of the definition of “united” and posted it on his Twitter account.
“I guess they forgot the meaning of their own company … unreal... #lovepeople,” the former Fresno State star wrote.
Videos of Dao’s removal went viral, swamping Reddit and spreading to China, where they drew more than 160 million views on the Chinese version of Twitter. United’s stock dropped and online petitions called for the head of United’s CEO Oscar Munoz, who, the Wall Street Journal reminded, was still recovering from a heart transplant.
Meanwhile, TMZ and The Louisville Courier-Journal cited Kentucky medical board records to report that Dao had spent the last 12 years regaining his medical license and playing professional poker after a 2005 conviction for illegally prescribing and trafficking in painkillers.
All of it fed the online appetite for human interest. Most of it seemed beside the point.
Here’s what isn’t beside the point, though: Stories like this don’t go viral unless they have a ring of truth to them. What has been ringing this week is the sense that something ugly is re-accommodating human decency.
It isn’t just airlines, though consolidation has dramatically diminished competition and, with it, regard for consumers. In the last 10 years, mergers and takeovers have slashed the number of U.S. domestic airlines to five from 11. Delays are high, seats are tight, fees abound, overbooking is chronic. And not even soaring profits from rock-bottom jet fuel prices have freed airline executives to empower employees to treat customers like people worthy of respect.
It’s also in the Wells Fargo bank scam and the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act and our hijacked campaign finance system: There’s a creeping fear that we are being yanked out of our humanity by a wave of predation.
“We are going to fix what’s broken,” United’s Munoz vowed Tuesday. At a base salary of $1.25 million plus options and benefits, he’d better.
But it was telling that it took two apologies in public to make the head of the “friendly skies” corporation sound remotely like a human being.