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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

United behaves badly and pays a price

United Airlines planes are pictured at Chicago's O'Hare

United Airlines planes are pictured at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on Sept. 19, 2014. Photo Credit: Scott Olson

Forget for a moment the image of United Airlines passenger David Dao being beaten bloody and dragged off a plane because he refused to give up his seat as staffers demanded Sunday in Chicago.

OK, you can’t forget it. It will always be with us, this image of a ticketed and checked-in passenger being treated like a hijacker because he tried to stay in the seat he paid for and the airline checked him in to. Try to put it aside for a sec, though.

And put aside the fact that Dao, a doctor, was convicted of drug-related offenses in 2003. It’s not relevant. It’s not like United staffers knew about his sordid past and decided they just couldn’t stomach his ilk on the trip. They would have done him just the same even if he spent 80 hours a week treating the poor for free and his greatest sin was uttering an enraged “golly” in mixed company.

And please stop with the screaming headlines about overbooking and the wonky explanations about how airlines have to sell too many tickets for the seats to fill the plane and keep flight prices down.

That’s irrelevant to this situation, too. Dao was not bumped from the flight for another passenger. His expulsion had nothing to do with overbooking, had nothing to do with other United customers. If it were other customers, rather than employees, who hadn’t checked in and didn’t have seat assignments, they almost certainly would have been the ones out of luck, not Dao.

Dao bought a ticket from United, checked in, was given a seat assignment, and boarded the plane under the watchful eyes of United employees after the little scanning machine looked at his ticket and beeped cheerily. He seated himself peacefully. He may or may not have picked up the in-flight magazine, grimaced at the cover story, and replaced it, unopened. The reporting is unclear on this point.

Then he was dragged, literally kicking and screaming, off the plane. This was done so United employees could have his seat and three others held by passengers, one of them Dao’s wife, who went willingly when told they must so those employees could hop on a plane in Lousiville, Kentucky, and help the company make a little cash by crewing a flight.

Airlines try very hard not to let people on the plane who may not get to fly, to avoid situations like this. In this case, four United employees came to the gate and said they needed to hop on to Louisville, after the paying passengers had boarded.

United then, quite reasonably, tried to get people to deplane by offering first $400 and a hotel room, then $800 and a hotel room. For whatever reason, no one on the plane valued the money more than the ride, and no one took the deal.

United then had several options. It could have offered more. Regulations set four times the ticket price or $1,350 as the limits for involuntary bumping, but it’s unclear how much Dao paid for his ticket. It could have looked at getting the employees on another airline, hiring a private jet or a helicopter, or contracting a chauffeured car for the 300-mile trip.

Or, failing all this, it could have valued the right of the customers seated on the plane to go where United had promised to take them, and canceled the flight the crew would miss. Airlines certainly cancel flights when it’s in their interest, as all frequent travelers know. United canceled 5,470 in 2016.

At every point there was incompetence, and that’s what this story is about. A company planning badly, behaving badly, responding badly, not putting its customers first and, judging by Tuesday’s stock drop of 1.1 percent and the mobs swearing they’ll never fly the airline again, faring badly going forward.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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