United Kicks Another Asian Doctor Off a Plane

United seems to have learned something after David Dao was dragged off a plane and beaten after Chicago Airport Police were called when he wouldn’t give up his seat. They committed not to outsource customer service problems to law enforcement any more.

And in the case of retired Ohio State pharmaceutics professor Dr. Jessie Au, a 5’3″ grandmother the airline says was “belligerent,” they kept that commitment. She was kicked off the plane without bloodshed after the airline assigned a basic economy passenger to the exit row seat her husband was already occupying.

Au and her husband were ticketed to fly United’s Washington Dulles – Los Angeles 7 p.m. flight UA1448 on June 24 after a visit to the National Institutes of Health and FDA. They were pre-assigned seats at the time of booking, boarded their flight as scheduled, and took their seats. However “about 20 minutes later” another passenger came along with a boarding pass for one of those seats.

  • A flight attendant took both passengers’ boarding passes to sort out the confusion.

  • The crewmember reportedly dropped the boarding pass of the man originally assigned the seat several rows back and then denied it was ever given to her.

  • Eventually things got sorted, and the second passenger arriving at the exit row was re-assigned.

That should have been the end of the story of United’s mistake in double-assigning a seat.

However the dropped boarding pass was returned to the passengers, and they “tried to get the attention of the flight attendant.” Apparently they felt as though they had been accused of something improper earlier, even though they were ultimately allowed to keep their seats, and now felt vindicated. However the flight attendant ignored them.

“They had their back to me. I said,“We have the pass here it is,” says Dr. Au. They ignored her “until I tapped her elbow from her seat. “’I just want to show you.’”

Au says, “The flight attendant and gate gate both yelled at us. We were traumatized. You could hear them screaming throughout the plane. “Don’t touch me! You are coming out! I’m going to kick you off the plane.”

Flight attendants bump into me all the time, since I always take an aisle seat. About half the time they apologize tapping my shoulder again. I’m not a hugger or a toucher, I really don’t like this, but I understand it’s cultural in some parts of the country and let it go.

However in the post-9/11 environment the same thing that led to David Dao’s getting dragged off a plane caused problems for Dr. Au. There’s a ‘respect my authoritah’ confrontational environment between crew and passengers at times. I’ve seen passengers question their bags being moved from the overhead bin above them many times, and the flight attendant response is usually something to the effect of, “Are we going to have a problem?” That’s when you shut up.

A disturbance of any kind on the aircraft is treated as a security risk. You might be creating a diversion for something nefarious! (Even on the ground…?)

And with all of the passengers behaving badly as planes are full and seats are increasingly squeezed together, the slightest movement can be misinterpreted. In this case, United reportedly classified the woman as “physically threatening.”

They were asked to leave the aircraft. They refused. Three agents boarded the plane. The pilot announced everyone would have to deplane. United put the couple up in a hotel and rebooked them for a flight the next day, while other passengers continued on to Los Angeles.

They “were warned that they were on an internal watch list. Au says she has been repeatedly questioned on subsequent flights” and “the United Airlines Passenger Incident Review Committee, (PIRC) had previously demanded she produce a substantial written response within 96 hours or face a lifetime ban from United.”

The issue was caused by a gate agent error and, it seems, poor employee communication and customer service coupled with a misunderstanding. But it’s the customer who suffered – but only emotional suffering and inconvenience, no beatings, and that’s progress.

(HT: Reid F.)

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. LOL @ “no beatings, and that’s progress”… seems United learned their expensive lesson, it’s a lot harder to sue without medical records to back your case.

  2. Maybe there’s something to the suggestion that FAs are similar in some respects to prison guards. Certainly a modest ( but apparently increasing) number of them seem to take weird pleasure in bullying, harassing and threatening those who pay their salaries. In the event of a major downturn in aviation, many of these martinets would be well-suited to prison work.

  3. It’s too bad there’s no way a lawsuit could get far enough to allow discovery and let us see what the PIRC concluded about this event.

    Fascinating that they have continued to fly UAL despite the incident. This is, for me, right up there with the daughter of the lifetime AAirpass holder still flying AA despite AA taking away his pass. A remarkable contrast to the folks who say “I’ll never fly again” after a moderately bad CS experience.

  4. My theory on this is that flight attendants absorb minor annoyances throughout their entire shift and at some point (end of day or once a month) that frustration is released in ways like this. I share multiple eye rolls with flight attendants over the stupid stuff passengers do or request – and I can imagine at some point you just can’t take any more. Passengers have to accept some small responsibility for treating flight attendants like they are servants or to not be listened to. At the same time airlines need to select during the hiring process for people who have a higher tolerance for these kinds of things (or monitor it during employment and press for time off or re assignment when they notice FAs hitting a wall).

  5. I read your post a couple of times and I seem to be missing the part that explains why the race of the passenger, which is prominent in you headline, is relevant.

  6. Sort of a sidetrack related to the story: I went back to the Forbes (9/12/19) story Gary cited. I pulled out the following: “The United Airlines Passenger Incident Review Committee, (PIRC) had previously demanded she produce a substantial written response within 96 hours or face a lifetime ban from United.”

    This is unacceptable. People have to travel and as many have pointed out, the airlines have a Oligopoly. They should not be able to ban someone from travel on their airlines without due process. I do not care if traveling on an airplane is a “right” in common law or in the constitution. Being able to restrict someones ability to travel due to a simple dispute is plain wrong.

    I also find repugnant that the airline added them to a database of troublemaker passengers forever. I am guessing that database will follow them throughout the rest of their life.

  7. OK, the FA and GA overreacted but it seems like it didn’t need to come to that as the two elderly, retired PhDs were permitted to keep their assigned exit row seats. But no… Mrs. elderly, retired, grandmother PhD couldn’t just let it go and decided to mouth off at the FA. LOL.

  8. when FA believe they are and can act as sheriff for whatever they feel as disturbing them, i try to avoid flying those airlines who hire them. I’m not familiar with the US justice system but is it possible to sue an airlines, or even a FA personally, when delays and damaging other consequences occur for such minor reasons ? obviously extreme cases such as David Dao generate lawsuits but what about less dramatic circumstances?

  9. You keep pushing these stories of when this minority or this female or whatever protected class is wronged by an airline…but heterosexual white males get screwed by airlines, disrespected, kicked off airplanes, etc..everyday, it just doesn’t get reported. If there was evidence of actual racism involved then report it, but this nonsense is a non-story. People who act belligerent or hostile should be kicked off, whatever their race, sex, or sexual orientation.

  10. Seems to me like this is ripe for a lawsuit against United. I don’t love the litigious society that we live in, but this is one of those times it may make sense to attempt to reign in bad behavior.

  11. No beating no blood? United not living up to its consistent reputation
    So So Sad 🙁
    I miss flying United said no one ever

  12. The flight attendants should not always have the last word. It takes very little to annoy them & it is hardly fair to lay the blame on the passenger every time. I get sick of their (FA) lousy attitudes! Go somewhere else if you hate the public so much! It is a job that requires customer service skills & if you don’t have that (many do NOT), then get another job instead of always blaming the customer. FA ‘s are paid decently in relationship to their skills, & need to stop being prima donnas

  13. I’m not going to comment on the story above because we only have one side of the story. I do think your coverage of it is more than a little sensationalistic and there are elements that simply don’t ring true.

    That being said If you read travel blogs you might get the impression that the majority of flight attendants are power mad and looking for any excuse to kick people off planes.

    You know how many people have been removed from flights I’ve been on in any capacity in 20 years of being an airline pilot?


    Yep. 2

    The first was a women who was asked 4 times politely to place her dog in the carrier as required for transport onboard. Her response to the fourth request was to tell the FA to go F himself. And she was drunk. Yep she was removed.

    The second was a couple of first started screaming at another pax over I don’t know what. They were separated and the couple went back to their seats and proceeded to get into a screaming match at each other. They were then removed by the gate agent when he went back to see if he could calm them down. Obviously not.

    You know how many times I’ve had customers behave like total jerks and the have still been allowed to fly? Too many to count.

    We don’t want to remove people from the airplane. It’s frankly a pain, means lots of paperwork, and carries a high probability of having some blogger or news reporter make us out to be worse than Hitler based on a one sided account that isn’t remotely connected to reality. Plus it creates delays which we like as much as you do. To get removed in general you have to work hard to make us believe that you absolutely are going to end up being met by police or causing a diversion to have you removed.

    I’m not saying there aren’t power drunk airline employees out there. Their absolutely are. Every group no matter how selectively screened has its bad apples. But they represent an extreme minority.

  14. Interesting. I wonder if I am allowed to claim “battery” and have flight attendants removed from flights when they smash their enormous a$$es into my shoulder, when seated in the aisle?

  15. 121Pilot — you’ve seen “2. Yep. 2” people ejected in your day, but then you describe ejection of three people. I trust you fly a plane better than you count!

  16. There’s an art to wielding authority and maintaining it after a personal screw-up. If the relationship starts off as adversarial, you’d need an enlightened FA not to escalate after making a mistake.

  17. i am an aged admin law litigator. lived in the pacific, so thought this was some kind of cultural dyscommunication. apparently not. it is 2 UA employees erring under pressure and covering their butts, if the Forbes writer on whom Gary relies is correct. you gotta wonder why the ua work environment is so bad that their employees act out to diss an asian american grandma. notwithstanding old friend who retired from ua, i will stay very, very far away from that carrier. my instincts would be to find a basis for these folks to sue big time on the effect of the “pirc” black list. both the company and the authors of the committee complaint. if it happened to these folks it has happened to….. libel?

  18. Theres something amiss here though. UA reviewed this multiple times, and STILL wanted to ban the customer. I think there is more to this story than we know, and the customer is trying to get out in front of it. There is no way with UA’s history that they dig their heals in THIS much for an incident like this…I’m not saying UA is blameless, I am just saying there seems to be more to the story.

  19. Why would she push her luck after she’s in her seat? Just sit down and shut up. Move on. It’s over. God, why do people always feel the need to have the last word? To always be right? Well, you were right. And because of that, you had to jump through hoops. Principal you may say? Well next time, swallow it and go on with your life. There are bigger more important things in life than a boarding pass…

  20. @Robert Concord the husband was the one removed by the gate agent. His wife choose to get off with him.

    Regardless the central point still stands. Would you like to talk about that?

  21. The original story on this event was published in Forbes. It states the husband’s boarding pass was later found and picked up off the cabin floor and returned to him by another passenger. That implies the FA purposely discarded the boarding pass and had lied when the FA claimed the boarding pass wasn’t presented in the first place. I suspect the couple realized at that point they were vindicated of lying themselves and wanted to point that out to the FA’s. Considering UA staff had been reportedly yelling at the couple, I would have done the same as a matter of honor.

  22. Seems you dont know the entire story of why the 1st doctor was pulled off the plane. He was late and the gate was closed . He ran down the jet bridge against the direction of the agent. Imagine what would have happened if his name was Muhammad. F the slant eyes…they only follow rules when it works for them. Have you ever been to a Costco on a Saturday? You would think they never had a free sausage. I guess we can all ignore rules.

  23. You go to restaurants and you don’t touch the waiters, you go to stores and you don’t touch the employees. Do not touch flight attendants, simple as that. Press the call button, talk, loudly if necessary but again what gives the customers the right to touch the flight attendants? As to the “hitting the passengers in the aisle seat” when walking yeah, we really do not want to touch you.

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