FAA Administrator Joked With United During David Dao Crisis in Released Emails

ProPublica obtained and released a number of Acting FAA Administrator Dan Elwell’s emails.

Included in the batch was correspondence with United Airlines during their PR crisis surrounding the dragging and beating of passenger David Dao in April 2017, while Elwell was an advisor to the Secretary of Transportation.

When passenger Dao was ordered to get off the aircraft he was seated on, in order to accommodate employees the United Express carrier needed to work another flight, he refused. The airline dealt with the customer service challenge by calling airport police, who dragged him off the aircraft and bloodied him.

Instead of being shocked, angry, or disappointed that a customer was dragged off and bloodied, the response from United’s CEO was initially to apologize that passengers had to be re-accommodated because of the incident.

Munoz also sent a letter to employees recapping that Dao was treated politely by the airline, and that it was necessary to call police.

United’s initial defense of what happened fueled resentment and coverage of the issue. It highlighted the extent to which airlines, in a post-9/11 world, outsource customer service to law enforcement.

In the released e-mails Elwell called United ‘very responsive and proactive’ and hoped himself to get bumped given all the compensation United would be handing out.

Just over two weeks past the event United rolled out its customer service response. They had been in discussions with the Department of Transportation over the incident. And Elwell told the airline they were doing great!

Elwell isn’t wrong that tons of denied boarding compensation was now on the table to avoid involuntary denied boardings. However I’m not sure passengers would have been thrilled to see the Department of Transportation so encouraging of United during the Dao crisis.

And it should give pause to simplistic notions of ‘re-regulating’ airlines. Remember that these are the regulators. In Elwell’s case the former American Airlines pilot was an airline industry lobbyist in between stints in government.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. “In Elwell’s case the former American Airlines pilot was an airline industry lobbyist in between stints in government.”
    This makes me sick. It’s so disgusting.

  2. After the incident, I canceled my United Mileageplus Card, dumped my miles and have never flown United ever since.

  3. Re-regulation isn’t the potential problem, but a potential solution. The problem is the Good Ol’ Boys club mentality. Thanks for illustrating how desperately the industry needs to be separated from the organizations that should be holding it accountable.

  4. @SRT : good, i’ll prefer seeing you stranded in an airline terminal and sleeping there overnight when your flight is cancelled and you refuse to be interlined over to UA.

  5. While I generally agree that regulatory agencies in the USA are too cozy with the industries they are supposed to be regulating, your title and article content is slightly misleading. He made a legitimate joke about the IDB compensation United committed to, which is one of the positive outcomes of the Dao situation. He also thanked United for being proactive and responsive to the FAA, which might very well have been the case even if they were were creating a PR crisis by how they dealt with the issue publically in their communications to consumers and the media.

  6. @henry LAX: I appreciate your concern for my well being, but my travels have been going smoother sans United.

  7. DOT has always been worthless for enforcing passenger rights and double so under incompetent political hack Elaine. Hopefully the 737-MAX fiasco will be her death knell.

  8. Re regulation? How about just actual effective regulation in the first place. It is the proponents of deregulation who have the simplistic notions of ensuring the interests of the public, including safety, are being adequately protected.

    Regarding the 737Max, no doubt the cozy relationship between Boeing and the administration led to the US being the final holdout in grounding the plane. I bet there are some interesting emails between Boeing and the FAA on that.

  9. @henry – you embody the true republican empathy gap, that if it hasn’t affected (yet), you don’t care.

    The problem is that you don’t come across as a 1 percenter that travels by private jet and truly don’t need to give a crap to what happens to the average person, which means you have a good chance of being the next one to receive the “United treatment”.

    Then, of course I’m sure we’ll hear your outrage. Just like every hillbilly that is against Obamacare, up until they find out they have cancer, than they change their mind…too bad they’re too stupid to learn from their neighbors’ experience – the true republican empathy gap.

    Also, you’re being too hard. I’m sure that just like manafort, Dao otherwise lived a blameless life.

    Wait, no, I forgot this logic only applies to millionaire white collar criminals (which most likely won’t benefit you either).

  10. Airlines have a duty to get their employees home or to work. The passenger was then asked to leave the flight. He refused, which is a federal offense.

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