Chicago Says Cops Were at Fault in David Dao Dragging, Fires Two Officers

When David Dao was dragged off of a United Express flight in April, everything that could possibly have gone wrong did.

  • United decided to send crew on a full flight, necessitating bumping passengers. On net doing this would inconvenience fewer people.

  • They didn’t make the decision or communicate it early enough to handle denied boardings at the gate. So they had to pull passengers off the plane.

  • When there weren’t enough takers for voluntary compensation, they followed involuntary denied boarding procedures. Because they could.

  • When David Dao felt this was all unfair and refused to leave, United turned their customer service issue into a law enforcement issue. They called the Chicago Aviation Police.

  • The police responded with excessive force.

  • United compounded the issue when CEO Oscar Munoz apologized ‘that customers has to be re-accommodated’ — indeed, they re-accommodated his face.

United’s operational choices created the condition for the problem. Their denied boarding procedures allowed it to escalate. But the biggest issues were outsourcing customer service to the police, and the physical response by the police.

I’ve argued since the beginning that the culture at airlines in the U.S. post-9/11 to call the cops on customers quickly is a fundamental problem. If you’re perceived to be ‘talking back’ to crew, or don’t immediately follow a crew member’s instruction (perhaps you feel it’s arbitrary and capricious, perhaps you simply didn’t understand it the first time) you may be asked, “are we going to have a problem?”

And I’ve argued that the Chicago Aviation Police didn’t get enough of the blame as all of the focus was on United. United’s settlement with Dao even covered up for the cops, the airline paid and included a waiver of any claim against the city or its Aviation Police.

Now the Chicago’s Office of Inspector General has finally concluded that officers responded with excessive force and lied about the incident.

An investigation by the city’s Office of Inspector General found that three aviation security officers and one aviation security sergeant “mishandled” the situation, according to the office’s third-quarter report, released Tuesday. The investigation also found that employees had made misleading statements and “deliberately removed material facts from their reports.”

Acting on the inspector general’s findings and recommendations, the aviation department fired the officer who “improperly escalated the incident” and the sergeant who was involved in removing facts from an employee report, the inspector general’s office said. The other officers were suspended.

United Concourse, Chicago O’Hare

Chicago Aviation Police are no longer the lead responders to incidents, and are no longer supposed to call themselves police. One of the suspended officers resigned. The fourth officer had his 5 day suspension shortened to 2 days.

Excessive force findings are rare. Conclusions that officers lied are rare. And it just underscores the importance of video, even though it remains against the rules of many airlines.

Since the David Dao incident we’ve seen airlines paying more denied boarding compensation (like this woman who got $4000 for a bump last month) and offloading entire planes rather than forcibly removing a single passenger (and then re-boarding everyone but that passenger).

Those are good strategies for avoiding a media firestorm like what followed David Dao’s dragging. But they don’t address the fundamental problems in the customer service culture at airlines or of unnecessarily physical confrontations when police are called.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @Gary: This is not just a US based Airline’s Customer Culture ; its become a Trump Era American culture among the general population, businesses and in every walk of life in the US of A; sad but true thing is this culture was awakened post 9\11 and is here to stay – heck Trump is the president. Any protesting voice is met with “this is ‘Murica!! Get out of here if you dont like it”

  2. @Debit: You must have missed the explosion of rap music in the 80s protesting police brutality. And to think Los Angeles based NWA’s message was really “F@ck the Trump supporters” back in 1988.

    Stop spreading fake news.

  3. “ outsourcing customer service to the police”. Oh jeez. The aircraft is United Airlines property. If someone refused to leave your property when asked what would you do? Might you “outsource” your trespasser problem by calling police for assistance, too?

  4. I agree with Gary in that United was “outsourcing customer service to the police”.

    Moreover, I do not think that Dr. Dao could legally be called a trespasser. Airlines have now abandoned this line of reasoning in attempting to justify passenger removals because they know it wouldn’t hold up.

    United had no right to remove Dr. Dao from the plane. Because they boarded him, they could not invoke their involuntary denied boarding procedures to remove him from the aircraft. He had boarded. They couldn’t “deny boarding” to someone who had boarded. Instead, they needed to use their more stringent rules for removal of a passenger. Dr. Dao paid for a ticket, was given a boarding pass, was allowed to board. His insistence that he was entitled to stay on board wasn’t enough for United to call him a trespasser and order his physical removal. Nor does the hierarchy of passengers that United uses to prioritize passengers in an IDB have any bearing on their removal procedures. They aren’t tied together in that way.

    United knew that it stood no chance in upholding that they were entitled to remove Dr. Dao from the plane. They knew that his injuries as the result of the excessive force used by the police was also going to be tied to them. That’s why United paid him multimillions.

  5. @Brian – I disagree that an airline cannot remove a passenger that has been boarded. “denied boarding” is a term of art describing what happens when an airline has more passengers than seats, it doesn’t apply literally to whether someone has crossed the threshold of an aircraft or not.

  6. The Chicago Police were Most definitely the Guilty Party regarding the Dao Incident, United just didn’t properly execute their IDB procedures Before Boarding commenced. and for Ignorant People who like to disrupt and attempt to Bully their Way with Airlines, Get a Clue….. They Can and Will Deny Transport To Anyone They Determine appears to be. threat, disruptive or Bat Shit Crazy! it IS Their Airplane and Their Perogative….. They have it covered in Their Contract of Carriage. The iPhone BS will only Take u So Far and People need to Wise up or Many More Deplanements WILL Occur…… You are Not in a Position to Tell Them How to Run Their Business….. don’t like the situation, find other means.

  7. It’s hard to feel sorry for these officers, because it does seem like they could have removed Dr. Dao in a less forceful manner. So now lots of people have “paid the price” for their wrongdoing in this incident. But one person hasn’t: and that’s Dr. Dao. At the end of the day, his behavior was still very wrong — perhaps worse than some of the other actors involved — and he made a boatload of money out of his bad behavior. That doesn’t seem quite fair to me. I guess life’s not always fair.

  8. Too bad life has treated you bad iahphx.
    Do you feel bad for Oscar too?
    But with your wussy attitude, I’m not too surprised about your whine.

    And Gary, it’s Dr Dao, you thought leader.

  9. Sam – you missed iahphx point completely. Dr Dao did not have a 100% guaranteed right to that seat. Read your contract next time you buy a ticket. He was asked several times to leave (meaning he is a belligerent pain in the ass) and the police were called. He caused the problem, brought it on himself but made millions. No wonder customers misbehave – what a payoff for a bloody nose !!!!

  10. Airline gone wild … and the cops get the blame!!!

    The bottom line is paid passengers are customers and United is in the travel/hospitality/customer service – a huge fail on part of United even though the cops needed to investigate before dragging customers that did not pose risk to self or others off any plane.

  11. Wasn’t there news before that the Chicago aviation police weren’t actual police? They were just security guards with shirts that said police?

  12. The police has two mandates: enforce the law, and promote safety. The police officers are not the airline’s private bouncers. In this case, Dr. Dao did not brake the law, and did not pose a safety risk. A thirty seconds investigation would have established this. Once the officers determined that no crime was committed and that safety had not been compromised, they should have left the scene.

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