We’ve all seen the video countless times, right? Jackbooted thugs pulling a poor doctor out of his seat on a United flight from Chicago to Louisville, bloodying his face along the way, just because United needed to get some pilots to a flight in the Bluegrass. The resulting social media uproar, much of it presumably conducted by people who only take one flight a year (and that’s on Allegiant or Spirit—final destination: Las Vegas), ended up costing United 4 percent of its company value, or a whopping $770 million. Ouch. Warren Buffett personally lost $52M as a result of the decline. (This is the same market which values Tesla as being worth more than Ford.)
Of course, it’s completely obvious to anybody with half a brain who was in the wrong here—and it’s not United.
To give you some context, let me tell you a little about my history as a commercial airlines passenger. Since 2010, I’ve held Platinum status with Delta every year, and either Gold or Platinum with American. This means I’ve been on at least 120 commercial flights a year for going on eight years. This year, I’m on pace to fly well over 150 times. It’s true that I do not fly United unless absolutely necessary, because I think they’re the worst of the major airlines when it comes to customer service. (Of course, when I started flying, the major airline players included two more names than they do today, with US Airways having merged with American and Continental having been swallowed up by the aforementioned United.)
In fact, the only time I flew United in recent memory was a last-row flight from Houston to Newark a few years back, the final insult of my weekend in which I attempted to race Lemons for the first time. Their flight attendants have a way of making you feel like they’re doing you a favor by pouring you a plastic cup of tepid water, and their hubs are some of my least favorite airports in the US (O’Hare, Newark, Denver, Houston-Bush). They’re almost always inexplicably overpriced on all of my routes. Plus, they only fly to O’Hare and Bush out of my home airport, which is pretty inconvenient for me since much of my travel is to the southeastern US.
But as much as I dislike United, they’re absolutely right to have bumped Dr. David Dao from his seat, and he was absolutely wrong to have resisted. Any airline ticket you buy as a passenger comes with the fine print that you may be asked to give up your seat in an oversold situation. Airlines oversell nearly every single flight because the vast majority of the time, there are a large number of customers who miss connections or change their plans the day of the flight. If they didn’t oversell, they’d end up with a lot of empty seats, and they’d have to charge more per ticket. 99% of the time, overselling a flight harms nobody and reduces the price of tickets for everybody.
But United did what every airline does—they offered a pretty hefty subsidy for anybody willing to take a morning flight, including $800 and a night in a hotel, which is double what they offer most of the time. If I had been on that flight, I would have jumped up so quickly to take that money that I would have hit my head on the overhead luggage compartment. The last three years, I’ve paid to take my kids to Disney World with credits that Delta has given me. In fact, I got $1600 in credits in one day once by continuing to allow myself to get bumped to the next flight—I had originally been scheduled to take the 7:05 flight to Atlanta, but didn’t leave until the 3:30 PM. By my count, that’s $200 an hour, tax-free. Not bad.
Miraculously, it was absolutely critical that everybody on that flight get from Chicago to Louisville—which, by the way, is about a five-hour drive—and nobody took the credit. I would have not only taken the credit, I would have asked for a refund on my flight and I would have walked over to National Car Rental and taken a one-way rental for about $100. I’ve done this many times in the past, as well.
So United had no chance but to bump passengers, because they had to get a flight crew to Louisville. (I suppose that they, too, could have driven five hours, but I am not sure when their flight out of SDF was scheduled to leave.) Imagine how pissed the 150+ people in Louisville would have been to have their flight canceled because they didn’t have a crew, and how much United would have had to compensate them? United had no choice but to handle it the way they did.
No, the jerk here is Dao, who refused to abide by the terms of his contract with the airline and refused to deplane when asked. I know that everybody thinks that airlines are supposed to be perfect and depart and arrive exactly on time with every single flight, but frequent fliers have come to accept that this just isn’t the case. Because he was selected to be bumped by the airline, we can gather that Dr. Dao has no frequent flier status with United—they don’t bump their FFs. So while it’s understandable that he doesn’t necessarily have a great amount of experience with oversold situations, he should have deplaned and then lodged his complaint with United until he received satisfaction.
This sort of thing continues to embolden idiots like these two, who tried to sit in higher priced seats and then refused to move, betting on the fact that United wouldn’t want to risk another PR scandal. They bet wrong. Again, I’ve tried to move into unsold Economy Plus seats in the past and was told I couldn’t. It happens. I stayed in my seat.
Unfortunately, in this day and age, people think that just because they record an incident, that puts them in the right. Dao did not adhere to the terms of his contract, and yet people are making him out to be a victim. That’s wrong.