United Airlines and the Role of Police

For those unaware, two weeks ago, United Airlines made headlines after a video of police officers violently dragging a passenger off-board surfaced. The man, Dr. David Dao, was a 69-year-old doctor who was flying to return to a hospital so that he could see patients the following day. It was a full flight – but United Airlines wanted four of their workers to be onboard so that they could make it to the Louisville airport for work-related reasons. After offering vouchers for up to 800 dollars, attendants from United Airlines failed to procure enough volunteers. As a result, they resorted to “randomly choosing volunteers”. When asked to leave the plane, Dr. Dao refused. Airline personnel then called the police – who forcibly removed him from the plane.

The outrage stems from the several factors. To start with, passengers are furious over the fact that a boarded customer was kicked off a flight through no fault of his own. United Airlines had originally erroneously claimed that the flight was overbooked – but that does not justify forcing a passenger off-board, especially because the mistake is United’s own.

One area that United Airlines received substantial criticism about was their handling of the situation. CEO Oscar Munoz first statement was mocked for his word choice of having to “re-accommodate” when the video clearly showed Dr. Dao being violently dragged off. His treatment at the hands of officers caused him to suffer a concussion, broken nose, as well as the loss of two teeth. Furthermore, in the initial statement, United Airlines tried to pin the blame on Dao by accusing him of being “disruptive and belligerent”. Such victim-blaming did not sit well with the public, and United Airlines faced severe backlash. Their stock fell $1.4 billion. Many flyers – especially in China, where United is a popular choice, and in Houston, one of the biggest medical hubs – proclaimed their boycott of United.

Since then, United has changed their attitude and sought to make amends. They have begun executing several new policies, among them raising the maximum amount that the airline will offer to a customer who volunteers to forgo their seat to $10,000, and insinuating new training for all agents. They have also settled with Dr. Dao for an undisclosed amount.

In light of the recent scandal regarding United Airlines, several questions have been raised. Among them has to do with the role of police. When is it acceptable for officers to use force? When should one break from procedure and act in a morally correct way? How did the police become involved in an incident that should have been able to be resolved from United’s airline workers?

Officers involved in the incident claimed that Dao was “swinging his arms up and down with a closed fist”. Other passengers paint a very different picture, and say that Dao was understandably upset, but not aggressive until officers pried him from his seat. When questioned about the officers’ actions, The Chicago Department of Aviation stated that “it was not in accordance with our standard operating procedure, and the actions of the aviation security officer are obviously not condoned by the Department”.  We can only hope that this scandal marks the beginning of more change in the role of officer-passenger interaction, and that those in a position of power think twice before acting, even if only because our technological-centric world means that their actions will not be missed.

One thought on “United Airlines and the Role of Police

  • April 29, 2017 at 5:16 pm

    Thanks for sharing this! I was aware of the incident but did not know the details, and I was unaware that it was the police who removed Dr. Dao from the flight in such a violent manner. I was, therefore, also unaware that this was an example of police brutality. It is especially interesting to compare this incident to many of the other incidents that have garnered media attention. Though I most often think of police brutality as happening on city or community streets, the United Airlines case makes it clear that police brutality can happen in more places and ways than one might have imagined. This seems to suggest that we should rethink the police role in all the areas in which they operate.


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