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The Doctor May Have Been in the Wrong, but United Still Sucks

Tuesday, April 11, 2017 14:12
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Like most people who do a fair bit of flying, I was pretty appalled yesterday upon reading about United Airlines’ treatment of a passenger, who Sunday night refused to give up his seat to some airline employees from a partner airline, who apparently needed to get to Louisville, KY, and who was forcibly dragged off the plane unconscious and bleeding as a result.

I can’t stand United on a good day. My nickname for that airline is “Ghetto United,” because generally, I’ve had very few experiences that can be classified as “good” with them. So I do try to avoid United as much as possible on any given day.

Sunday’s story, to me, was beyond disgusting, however, that ended up with an unconscious passenger, who had already taken his seat, and who was “randomly” selected to give it up to airline employees. Yes, it was legal for United to do what it did. Ethical? Ehhhh….. I’ll explore that further on this blog. But definitely legal.

Yes, the captain of the flight has the authority to decide to remove someone from a flight for any reason they deem fit.

Yes, the airline was legally entitled to remove him after he absolutely refused to obey the captain’s command.

Overbooking a plane is perfectly legal, and it does provide flexibility to both the airline and the passengers, as well as helps keep prices from skyrocketing.

Yes, United offered compensation. Some reports say $800, and United claims they offered $1000. A sliding scale applies in cases of overbooked flights.

If the airline is able to get you to your final destination within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time, there is no compensation. If you get there between one and two hours after your original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay you twice the one-way fare with a $675 maximum. And if you arrive more than two hours late(four hours internationally), the compensation is four times the one-way fare, to a maximum of $1,350.

Was the passenger offered cash? Was he offered a voucher to fly that crappy airline again? I don’t know. I tried to find out the answer, but the Internets failed me today. Maybe someone else will know.

If they offered me cash, provided I didn’t have anywhere important to be that day, I probably would have cheerfully taken it. If they offered me a voucher to subject myself to this nonsense again, I probably would have given them the finger, as the majority of these passengers appeared to have done. Dirty cabins, broken equipment, frequent delays, an appalling lack of service… no thanks. Offering me a “free” trip on that crap airline would have made me even angrier.

I want to be fair to the airline. There are reasons for overbooking, and there are good reasons for removing passengers. According to travel expert Gary Leff, some of these reasons are safety related, and also save passengers money. Leff writes most airlines in North America will oversell (although apparently that didn’t happen in this instance, as this was more a case of needing to get a flight crew to its destination to fly the next day) using historical information to determine how many passengers are likely not to show up for a flight.

Airlines are pretty good at guessing these things, taking data like when the flight is and how far in advance tickets were purchased. And indeed they’re getting better, the rate of denied boardings has been on the decline over the past two decades. (In 2000, 0.21% of passengers were denied boarding (voluntary and involuntary) by the largest US airlines. In 2015, 0.09% were.)

You might think airlines shouldn’t overbook, sell each seat one time. But if that were the case airlines wouldn’t really be able to allow passengers the freedom to switch flights at will either on refundable tickets or merely by paying a change fee. Show up 15 minutes late for the airport, buy a new ticket.

OK, it doesn’t happen often, but it does happen, and it’s inconvenient, and it sucks.

Leff also makes a viable counterpoint to the argument that the airline should have offered even more money to entice passengers to volunteer to give up their seats.

Should the airline have waited or kept upping the ante (let’s pretend there’s no cap, shall we)? I do see the point that this could cause a whole host of cascading consequences that would be bad for other passengers, the airline, and flights in other airports.

Except that the time spent doing this might cause even bigger problems. Or at least it’s reasonable for the airline to think ex ante that it might.

  • Delaying a flight even a little could cause crew to time out and the whole flight to cancel
  • Government may have given the plane a very specific takeoff time (air traffic control) and if they miss their window the flight could be substantially delayed or even cancelled
  • A late flight might cause passengers to misconnect with their next flight and be stranded
  • And late arriving crew would delay other flights
  • Or crew might be required to sleep in the next day to meet legal minimum rest requirements

I get these are all logical reasons, but at the same time, this was detestable behavior by the cops and by the airline alike.

I get it. A group of airline employees needed to be in Louisville the next morning properly rested for a flight. The flight, scores of people on it, and their safety were at stake.

So why is it that this group of four employees was hustled on at the last minute, AFTER the passengers who paid for their seats were already boarded and in place? This was a superb lack of planning on the part of the airline! At the very least, preventing someone from boarding the plane would have been a much easier task than forcibly removing a passenger who was already seated.

As Leff points out, it’s a 4.5 hour trip by car from Chicago to Louisville and a roughly $300 Uber ride. Why weren’t the employees offered an option to spring for a large Uber at the airline’s expense, which would have cost the airline considerably less than $4000 to remove four already-boarded passengers from the plane? They could have rested comfortably in a Suburban, while an Uber driver got them to their destination.

Did the airline provide a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn’t, as required by the Department of Transportation before calling out the jackboots? I realize it would take a bit of time, but could the airline have done more to explain the situation, provide compensation or listen to the passenger’s reasons for not wanting to get off the plane? Obviously the passenger didn’t consider the $800 as adequate compensation. Maybe the doctor had a critical procedure to perform the next day. Maybe there was some other emergency at home. We don’t know what happened prior to the violent incident, but I haven’t seen any eyewitness reports that suggest the airline tried to negotiate or reason with the man. And while it may have taken longer to ensure that he willingly exited the aircraft, I guarantee you the three or more hour delay while they cleaned this man’s blood from the plane was much more egregious!

Yes, the passenger was agitated by the airline’s random selection of him to get booted from the craft. But was cracking his head and bloodying him a proportional response on the part of the cops? Really? Was the guy endangering anyone on the aircraft? Did he deserve to be physically assaulted for demanding that the airline provide the service he had already paid for, especially since he had already boarded the plane?

He wasn’t denied boarding. He was physically removed from a seat for which he had already paid, at a time when he had already boarded and occupied said seat. Was it moral? Was it ethical? Was it legal? The TSA site talks about denied boarding. There was no denied boarding in this case. The passenger had already boarded and occupied his seat, so forcibly removing him – not because he was disruptive or a danger to the flight in any way, but because the airline decided at the last possible minute that employees were more important than paying customers – is a no-go at this station.

Plus, while TSA regulations talk about involuntary bumping in the event the flight was oversold, this doesn’t appear to be the case here. All the passengers who paid for their seats were already in them. The airline at the last minute – after everyone was already seated – decided to forcibly remove passengers from said seats in favor of a partner airline’s employees. This is no longer a matter of “involuntary bumping.” This passenger was denied transport.

United claimed the passenger was getting agitated and unruly, but the removal process began before this. It began when United decided arbitrarily to remove him because they needed the seat. They didn’t remove him for safety reasons – as they are well within their right to do. They tried to remove him because they needed his seat, and he didn’t get upset until after he was ordered to leave the plane. United can claim he was in breach of Rule 21, section A.


UA shall have the right to refuse to transport or shall have the right to remove from the aircraft at any point, any Passenger for the following reasons:

  1. Breach of Contract of Carriage – Failure by Passenger to comply with the Rules of the Contract of Carriage.

But is that really the case?

The contract clearly states the rules under which it may be considered that the passenger has breached the contract and can be denied transport.

  • Government Request, Regulations or Security Directives – Whenever such action is necessary to comply with any government regulation, Customs and Border Protection, government or airport security directive of any sort, or any governmental request for emergency transportation in connection with the national defense.
  • Force Majeure and Other Unforeseeable Conditions – Whenever such action is necessary or advisable by reason of weather or other conditions beyond UA’s control including, but not limited to, acts of God, force majeure, strikes, civil commotions, embargoes, wars, hostilities, terrorist activities, or disturbances, whether actual, threatened, or reported.
  • Search of Passenger or Property – Whenever a Passenger refuses to submit to electronic surveillance or to permit search of his/her person or property.
    Proof of Identity – Whenever a Passenger refuses on request to produce identification satisfactory to UA or who presents a Ticket to board and whose identification does not match the name on the Ticket. UA shall have the right, but shall not be obligated, to require identification of persons purchasing tickets and/or presenting a ticket(s) for the purpose of boarding the aircraft.
  • Failure to Pay – Whenever a Passenger has not paid the appropriate fare for a Ticket, Baggage, or applicable service charges for services required for travel, has not paid an outstanding debt or Court judgment, or has not produced satisfactory proof to UA that the Passenger is an authorized non-revenue Passenger or has engaged in a prohibited practice as specified in Rule 6.
  • Across International Boundaries – Whenever a Passenger is traveling across any international boundary if:
    • The government required travel documents of such Passenger appear not to be in order according to UA’s reasonable belief; or
    • Such Passenger’s embarkation from, transit through, or entry into any country from, through, or to which such Passenger desires transportation would be unlawful or denied for any reason.
  • Safety – Whenever refusal or removal of a Passenger may be necessary for the safety of such Passenger or other Passengers or members of the crew including, but not limited to:
    • Passengers whose conduct is disorderly, offensive, abusive, or violent;
    • Passengers who fail to comply with or interfere with the duties of the members of the flight crew, federal regulations, or security directives;
    • Passengers who assault any employee of UA, including the gate agents and flight crew, or any UA Passenger;
    • Passengers who, through and as a result of their conduct, cause a disturbance such that the captain or member of the cockpit crew must leave the cockpit in order to attend to the disturbance;
    • Passengers who are barefoot or not properly clothed;
    • Passengers who appear to be intoxicated or under the influence of drugs to a degree that the Passenger may endanger the Passenger or another Passenger or members of the crew (other than a qualified individual whose appearance or involuntary behavior may make them appear to be intoxicated or under the influence of drugs);
      Passengers wearing or possessing on or about their person concealed or unconcealed deadly or dangerous weapons; provided, however, that UA will carry law enforcement personnel who meet the qualifications and conditions established in 49 C.F.R. §1544.219;
    • Passengers who are unwilling or unable to follow UA’s policy on smoking or use of other smokeless materials;
    • Unless they comply with Rule 6 I), Passengers who are unable to sit in a single seat with the seat belt properly secured, and/or are unable to put the seat’s armrests down when seated and remain seated with the armrest down for the entirety of the flight, and/or passengers who significantly encroach upon the adjoining passenger’s seat;
    • Passengers who are manacled or in the custody of law enforcement personnel;
    • Passengers who have resisted or may reasonably be believed to be capable of resisting custodial supervision;
    • Pregnant Passengers in their ninth month, unless such Passenger provides a doctor’s certificate dated no more than 72 hours prior to departure stating that the doctor has examined and found the Passenger to be physically fit for air travel to and from the destination requested on the date of the flight, and that the estimated date of delivery is after the date of the last flight;
    • Passengers who are incapable of completing a flight safely, without requiring extraordinary medical assistance during the flight, as well as Passengers who appear to have symptoms of or have a communicable disease or condition that could pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others on the flight, or who refuse a screening for such disease or condition. (NOTE: UA requires a medical certificate for Passengers who wish to travel under such circumstances. Visit UA’s website,, for more information regarding UA’s requirements for medical certificates);
    • Passengers who fail to travel with the required safety assistant(s), advance notice and/or other safety requirements pursuant to Rules 14 and 15;
    • Passengers who do not qualify as acceptable Non-Ambulatory Passengers (see Rule 14);
    • Passengers who have or cause a malodorous condition (other than individuals qualifying as disabled);
    • Passengers whose physical or mental condition is such that, in United’s sole opinion, they are rendered or likely to be rendered incapable of comprehending or complying with safety instructions without the assistance of an escort. The escort must accompany the escorted passenger at all times; and
    • Unaccompanied passengers who are both blind and deaf, unless such passenger is able to communicate with representatives of UA by either physical, mechanical, electronic, or other means. Such passenger must inform UA of the method of communication to be used; and
    • Passengers who are unwilling to follow UA’s policy that prohibits voice calls after the aircraft doors have closed, while taxiing in preparation for takeoff, or while airborne.

I don’t see anything in this contract that warranted removal PRIOR to the decision to remove him. They did not refuse transport for any of the reasons above. They refused transport, because they needed his seat, which is not listed in the contract as reason to deny.

In other words, something here stinks, and even if the aircraft crew or captain has the right to remove any passenger for any reason (which doesn’t really seem that way, judging from the contract), was this really the right thing to do?

My gut tells me no, and United will not be getting my business again. Ever.

P.S. No, it wasn’t racism, as Dr. Dao claims. The other passengers forced off the plane weren’t Asian. He also isn’t Chinese, as he says in the video when he asks whether they’re booting him because he’s Chinese, but Vietnamese. And he has a sketchy past himself, according to press, having been convicted in 2004 of multiple felony drug charges, including writing fraudulent prescriptions for controlled substances and trading prescription drugs for sexual acts.

But regardless of Dao’s sketchiness, he was still a human being who was physically assaulted for doing nothing more than refusing to relinquish the seat, for which he paid, and which he occupied at the time.

It’s not OK.

Filed under: FAIL Tagged: forcibly removed, passenger, plane, United

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