The Real Reason a Man Was Dragged Off That United Flight, and How to Stop It From Happening Again

Sunday’s incident where a man was dragged off a United Express plane and bloodied was terrible. It’s excruciating to watch the video of the incident unfolding, and later of the disoriented man mumbling “just kill me.”

United is taking the bulk of the blame here, and that’s probably their own fault. Their PR response has been disastrous, with United CEO Oscar Munoz apologizing for having to re-accommodate passengers. As Jimmy Kimmel said last night,

“It’s like how we ‘re-accommodated’ El Chapo out of Mexico,” Kimmel said. “That is such sanitized, say-nothing, take-no-responsibility, corporate B.S. speak. I don’t know how the guy who sent that tweet didn’t vomit when he typed it out.”

This was a tough situation all-around for which there were no good solutions. And things turned from bad to worse when a passenger refused to get off the plane when told to do so by the airline and by police. And it became the source of worldwide outrage when the police overreacted, dragged him off, and bloodied him.

There are a lot of myths about the situation, and it’s leading people to some bad conclusions.

  • This didn’t happen because United sold too many tickets. United Express (Republic Airlines) had to send four crew members to work a flight the next morning. The weekend was operationally challenging, this was a replacement crew, if the employees didn’t get to Louisville a whole plane load of passengers were going to be ‘bumped’ when that flight was cancelled, and likely other passengers on other flights using that aircraft would have their own important travel plans screwed up as well.

  • United couldn’t have just sent another plane to take their crew even if they had such a plane it’s not clear they had the crew to operate it legally, or that they could have gotten the plane back to Chicago in time legally so prevent ‘bumping’ via cancellation the whole plane load of passengers it was supposed to carry next.

  • If the passenger could have just taken Uber, why not the crew? because United doesn’t get to transport its crew any way it wishes whenever it wishes, they’re bound by union contracts and in any case they were following standard established procedures. We can debate those procedures, that’s productive, but United didn’t do anything out of the ordinary.

  • United should have just kept increasing the denied boarding offer passengers didn’t willingly get off at $800, they should have gone to $1000 (would that have made a difference?) or $5000 or $100,000 — it’s not the passengers’ fault United didn’t have enough seats. Though the time this would have taken might have lost a takeoff window or taken time where the crew went illegal (and the whole flight had to cancel) or the replacement crew wouldn’t get the legally required rest.

    More importantly, United didn’t do it because Department of Transportation regulations set maximum required compensation for involuntary denied boarding (in this case 4 times the passenger’s fare paid up to a maximum of $1350). So they’re not going to offer more than that for voluntary denied boardings, especially since the violent outcome here wasn’t expected and the United Express gate agent had no authority to do more.

I’m being called very terrible things in the comments that I won’t reprint here in this post. What happened to the man was terrible but it was a difficult situation all around, he should have complied when ordered off the plan by United and then by Chicago Aviation Police. It was a terrible situation for him, but one that at that point could foreseeably have gotten worse. I’m just glad he wasn’t accused of disrupting the flight as part of a terrorist plot that sort of thing can happen in confrontations like this.

The Chicago Aviation Police overreacted and appear to have used way too much force. One officer is already on leave because of the incident, the Aviation Police recognize some fault is likely there — and that’s a pretty high hurdle to climb considering the Chicago Police Department immediately stood up for an officer by claiming horribly that he had simply ‘fallen on his face’.

Is it possible that if circumstances were different — if different things had been done before Sunday — then the outcome would have been different? Sure. Although what those things are, what the consequences of those things would be, are debatable — and most people doing the debating don’t have much or even any information on which to base their judgments.

Fault here lies with:

  • United for not having as many seats as they sold, although it wasn’t because they sold more seats than the plane held, it was because their operation became a mess and they needed to salvage that to inconvenience the fewest passengers overall. It wasn’t “to maximize their profits” although they certainly wanted to limit their losses by limiting passenger inconvenience.

  • The passenger who should have gotten off the plane when ordered to do so. It sucked for him and wasn’t his fault, but refusing airline and police instructions unless designed to provoke a violent response for media attention to promote a civil rights cause is a bad idea.

  • The Chicago Aviation Police shouldn’t have responded with the force they did. They’re the most to blame. If they hadn’t used as much force this whole thing would never even have been a story.

United’s statements backing their employee, refusing to name the victim, or acknowledge that the police really did hurt him are deplorable.

But the situation itself lands mostly at the feet of the police, who appear to recognize this based on actions thus far.

So what do we do to prevent this in the future? The truth is there’s not very much. Running an airline is hard. Weather and mechanical problems and back luck and IT problems cancel and delay flights, so they work hard to recover.

Maybe the maximum denied board compensation should be even higher, though that’s not clearly an issue. When the Department of Transportation began regulating denied boarding in the 1970s, there were about 150,000 involuntary denied boardings in the U.S. per year — and now with many more passengers the number there are in the 40,000s. As flights have gotten more full, the percentage of passengers denied boarding has gone down.

The real solution here is to change the culture of law enforcement in aviation. As soon as there’s even a misunderstanding between passengers and crew, that can trigger law enforcement. The assumption is that the passenger is always wrong, the airline backs its crew, and there’s tremendous risk to the public. Not every customer service situation is a crime.

This is in no way limited to being a United issue, it’s endemic to American society and aviation as a whole. It’s a function of the growth of the security state in response to 9/11. We’ve come to accept it, and indeed we get it from the TSA day in and day out. Until that changes, incidents like these are likely to repeat themselves.

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. Kevin, we know you’re the type of dirtbag that defends officers no matter what, but the cowardly scum of the Chicago Aviation police are the major ones to blame. They’re the ones who escalated a benign situation into a hostile, violent situation.

    And Garry Leff, not sure where to begin with your drivel, but the dishonesty and often flat out lies in your paragraph are beyond pathetic. To fact check you a bit (a futile effort for someone as off the rocker as yourself), the gate agent has the authority to raise compensation (with the simple backing of United. Certainly as much authority as they do to throw someone off a plane). The union does not come into play with transferring employees. You’re obfuscating here. FYI, airlines have their own shuttles that they frequently use for these situations. I’m fairly certain United owns such a vehicle as well. And finally, this DID happen since United oversold tickets. If you know you have four employees to accommodate, then simply see four less tickets.

    Bottom line, your rambling is brain damaged

  2. Just a simple comment pointing out that EVERY SINGLE ONE of your contrarian sentiments have been DIRECTLY CONTROVERTED by United’s own admissions subsequent to the incident

    Despite what you wrote, United has voluntarily STOPPED its policy of forcibly removing passengers or bumping them for staff.

    that invalidates all the mental gymnastics you involved yourself with, trying to rationalize this gross corporate misconduct. the airport police used excessive force (and according to 1 witness even laughed while dragging Dao off the plane) but this was a SYSTEMIC failure… from the CEO all the way on down. FFS man, United even LOST THE MAN’S LUGGAGE after all that.

  3. Yes, it was an outrage, the manner they chose to handle this. No argument there.

    HOWEVER, what this also reinforces is DO NOT LISTEN TO anyone in ANY authority & BAM…..YOU TOO might get award large sums of money.

    let’s look at FACTS!! they were within their LEGAL rights to remove passengers as they did, moving to lottery when no one volunteered for a good amount of recompense.
    then after being removed, he SNEAKS back on & into seat.

    I say this…what about the other THREE who left before him who ALSO did not want to depart (or they’d have volunteered?)….they certainly obeyed law & terms of their ticket thought they did NOT enjoy being bumped. So screw the honest, UNSELFISH person, right?

    And the VERY worst charges I heard was this was “racist” and ALL of China is upset due to him MOST of all being targeted as an Asian man???????
    Are you f’ing kidding me?
    There were THREE others removed before him, how the heck could he have been profiled & targeted??? So they are protesting & some rioting in the streets of China over THIS?
    Have we LOST our minds? Everything is NOW racist biased when you can’t even make a case for it.

    SO sick of PC world today, it’s insane!! Oh and let’s not forget, be SURE to violate any rules, attack police & DO NOT obey laws…because that is the way to get a settlement.
    This man was clearly mentally ill & now has hit the lottery by disobeying LAWFUL demands.

  4. Alicia Platt, you are mistaken in your analysis. United Airlines has publicly stated the plane was not overbooked. That rumor has been debunked, so please stop repeating it. Regardless of the claim that three passengers got off after being told to do so has nothing to do with Dr. Dao. The Airline on board employees had no legal standing to tell anyone to get off the plane. The entire debacle was a caused by poor training of the Airline employees. Or, maybe they were on a power trip and just wanted to misuse their authority. Authority figures do not have to be obeyed if they are acting unlawfully. Dr. Dao did not have to obey the Security Officers who were following unlawful orders of the on board Airline employees. It’s never advisable to disobey a Security Officer or Law Enforcement Officer, but it’s legal to do so if their directive is unlawful. In this case, there was no legitimate reason for Dr. Dao to be kicked off the plane. He had already boarded and his luggage was either in the cargo hole, or on board with him. If the Airline needed volunteers to give up seats, that action must be done BEFORE passengers board and take their seats. The rumors about China are just that, rumors. Unless you are a minority, I suggest you keep your theories to yourself. As for Political Correctness, that’s just a dog whistle for Right Wingers. Common courtesy and politeness is the normal demeanor for all humans to practice. How dare you state Dr. Dao is; “clearly mentally ill.” The Security Officers used excessive force in battering and dragging Dr. Dao off the plane. His running back on board just proved he was confused and scared. Please learn the facts, as admitted to by the United CEO and stop spreading false claims. Dr. Dao didn’t take his paid seat on the plane planning to get rich. The injuries he sustained will be life altering. Nobody deserves that, and money doesn’t always fix a wrong committed.

  5. United didn’t overbook. They didn’t know, until the last minute, that they’d need 4 seats for employees. All the passengers had purchased tickets long before that.

  6. Some of the Myths were true. The plane was full, and all seats were occupied when the crew showed up with their must ride passes. The deadheading crew was late, and if the flight crew had simply closed the door when all passengers had boarded, the deadheading crew would have found a different way of getting to their destination on time. While expensive, United could have chartered a business jet for a lot less than what they eventually paid . And yes, there were other passengers who told the gate crew they were willing to get off the plane for only a few hundred dollars more than the $1000 the airline offered to Dr. Dao. The gate crew laughed in their face. Who’s laughing now?

    The entire episode represents a colossal series of blunders and poor judgments by all involved. The gate crew could have kept the seats open for the deadheading crew when they boarded the flight, and bumped the passengers at the gate. Having boarded all the passengers, the gate crew should have thought twice about calling the cops; as this was sure to generate a lot of unnecessary bad publicity. United is attempting to expand into the Chinese domestic market; so roughing up an Asian Doctor would certainly not be appreciated by either the Chinese government or United HQ. (United’s CEO was subsequently called to the Chinese consulate in Chicago) There were others who were willing to take a higher offer, and it made no sense to ignore their offers.
    As for the police, they should have simply walked away from something that was not a law enforcement issue, rather than endangering the lives of Dr. Dao and all on board by staging a riot on board the plane. Dr Dao was 69 years old, and could easily have died from a heart attack or other condition during any struggle. Other passengers could have gotten hurt as well.

    Finally, we should not overlook that what was done by the Airline and the police could be regarded as a criminal act. Using force and violence to get what you want is a felony called robbery, and since the Dr was more than 60 years old, a class 1 felony. It comes as no surprise then, that United very quickly settled this lawsuit “on an amicable basis.” At least someone had sense enough to see the danger they were in.

  7. Here’s the real question, When did United know they needed four seats for employees? Are you telling me that they are so incompetent that these employees rushed up after the plane was boarded and said “hey we have to get to ST louis” just out of the blue?
    The plane should not have been allowed to be boarded if they knew they were going to need 4 seats. So that tells me there was a HUGE miscommunication somewhere. What happened that created a situation where the flight crew had no idea they were going to need those seats until after the plane was full. Much better that people are pissed that they can’t get on, which I understand that is usually how it’s done, than to be dragging people forcibly off a plane.
    United is completely at fault for this and I hope the guy gets a huge settlement maybe that will get united to get it’s ducks in a row. How big a mess must they be in to not KNOW they were going to need those employees on the plane before hand?
    I mean these people were needed to fly another plane, right? So you just at the last minute, after the plane is full, you go “oh gee we need a crew to fly a plane”

  8. Yes, I agree. He was definitely wronged when he was forced off the plane, but everyone is exaggerating a little. His injuries were nothing that can’t heal. His refusal to get off the plane could have been constructed as a terrorist plot, being in the right place at the right time, being forced off could mess the attack all up, but I seriously doubt that he would be tied up in that. He had previous drug problems, leading the airport personnel to believe that he was smuggling, but again, I doubt that. He was chinese, but I doubt that was the reason. If you want to see he was not segregated, find the computer reports from the random selection. A security officer was put on leave because of the incident, but I am sure that there are and were federal laws requiring him to comply with the crew and security personnel. But it was also United’s fault in part because of their bad management of the booking record. How hard can it be to say ‘Oh, all of our seats have been taken, sorry’? But the incident will likely repeat itself from fear of 9/11. It may not seem like it, but the country is still under threat from another attack like that. Its only been 16 years. If it was 50, well that’s different, but that was still recent and very horrific. But, along with the other comments, I agree that United needs to change the way they do things.

  9. @Matt: “His injuries were nothing that can’t heal.” Broken teeth do not heal. Concussions can result in permanent brain damage. Even a broken nose can be quite serious in a 69-year old male.

    “His refusal to get off the plane could have been constructed as a terrorist plot,” I am personally very tired of everyone and their uncle claiming that everything is suspicious as a possible terrorist plot. It’s really silly and leads to an unjustifiable escalation of responses.

    “He had previous drug problems, leading the airport personnel to believe that he was smuggling” Can you cite even one source for your assertion that airline staff knew of his previous issues with drugs and suspected him of smuggling? None of the reports I’ve seen have ever suggested this. His past is irrelevant. Bringing it up is an attempt to shift blame onto the victim.

  10. I know it’s been a while, but I just want to say that I FULLY 100% agree with this article, and I was in complete shock that instantly the entire country seemed to rally around this jerk, David Dao. To me this wasn’t the fault of United (as they regularly do things like this without the media getting involved or even caring), OR the police (as we are in a post 9/11 era where throwing a tantrum on an airplane COULD and should put you in jail). Whether or not it was the actual police does not matter to me, only that David Dao thought he was more important than everyone else on that plane. He lied to the other passengers, he lied to the crew, and while they couldn’t KNOW he was lying, his reasons for not getting off of the plane were irrelevant. We as consumers don’t own the plane or United, if they tell you to get off the plane, get off the fecking plane. If it makes you that angry, go file a complaint, go to the media, go to the service desk after leaving the plane, but don’t make a scene on a private aircraft you do not own, and expect to get away with it just because our society is so liberal now, and you know people will be recording. This entire thing made me realize who has common sense and who doesn’t. Apparently most people don’t, and everyone loves a good victim story.

  11. It’s United who either lied or broke the law (possibly both).

    They had no right to remove a boarded passenger except for specified reasons, none of which applied here.

  12. Stop dumbing us all down!

    United could have gotten authority to offer more compensation than what is regulatory. It has been done before and it doesn’t take as long as you are implying, (your implication being in numerous instances that going out of protocol takes too much effort and time) United works out of protocol all the time and whenever it is convenient for them.

    Perhaps the point here is that people are willing to take a huge hit in order to make their point that they are done with the status quo. The general public feels the same way with the airlines that they do with government, so listen up airlines!

    The next thing that is going to happen is the airlines will make it against their policy to have a phone on the plane under the presumption that it is unsafe for flying, while in all actuality it will be to keep passengers from sharing situations like this.

    That’s ok, we can still use a video camera that isn’t a phone and still upload to youtube.

    The public can manage the airlines by continuing to publish the inflight airline shenanigans . Electronics are keeping the public out of the dark and into the drivers seat.

  13. Brynn: Forward, sheep! Bahhh, bahh! Do not make any efforts to enforce your rights in federal law against your corporate overlords! You are too insignificant for them to be forced to be bothered by your pitiful attempts to assert yourself! Bow to them and do as they say, and file your laughable complaint later, which will be duly ignored.

  14. 1) Lack of Preparation on Your Part Does Not Constitute an Emergency on My Part. 2) It’s about respect. What if that passenger had been Tom Brady or Hillary Clinton?

  15. I’m sorry, you don’t get a pass on this. If United had to transport four crew members, then why did they wait until all passengers were onboard, seated, and buckled in? I’ll tell you why, because they didn’t know they had to transport four crew members until the last minute. If the plane had taken off, then what would they have done? There is no excuse for United and you should not be white washing the absolutely horrific behavior of this airline.

    I travel extensively. In fact, I used to be on a plane 3-5 days a week. In the 1980s, United was great. They started taking a downturn in the 1990s, and today they are without a doubt the worst, rudest, and least customer centric airline in the industry. In fact, I take multiple connections on other carriers to avoid flying United. They need to go out of business!

  16. You need to blame Danielle Hill, she is the Supervisor with the terrible attitude who started this whole incident. Horrible, uncivilized Woman..

  17. You mention that United should have kept increasing the amount for VDB. However, you also say this, “Though the time this would have taken might have lost a takeoff window or taken time where the crew went illegal (and the whole flight had to cancel) or the replacement crew wouldn’t get the legally required rest.”

    He was bleeding profusely due to the excessive and unreasonable force of the Aviation Security Officers. All passengers were required to deplane so they could clean it up. The plane ended up leaving 2 1/2 hours late. Obviously, the crew didn’t go illegal.

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