If You’re a Person of Color, There Are No Friendly Skies

The abuse suffered by David Dao on United is sadly neither unique to the carrier or the passenger. But will the airline industry ever change its ways?

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As a seasoned traveler, I’ve never seen an airline more comfortable with overbooking flights than United. It’s become practically part of the routine to arrive at the gate and hear a caffeine-pumped voice over the PA asking for volunteers to give up their seats. Sometimes passengers are agreeable—but not always. Whether or not they’re amenable, passengers have held up their end of the bargain with air carriers, they’ve paid for a seat and shown up on time. For carriers like United to treat customers as criminals for being unwilling to “volunteer” to part with what they rightfully paid for is just absolutely ludicrous, and frankly speaks volumes of the freedom the U.S. gives corporations when it comes in the name of worshiping the bottom line.

Of course I’m referring to a recent scuffle aboard a United flight earlier this week, which sent a one hell of a chill through the internet-sphere as a United Airlines passenger posted a video of security forcibly removing a passenger from an overbooked flight. The story goes that United had overbooked its flight and offered the routine stipend-voucher-hotel package they offer to those who voluntarily give up their seats. When no passengers bit, United upped the price to $800 and warned passengers that the plane would not leave the tarmac until four airline employees on standby received their seats.

Apparently, Louisville is where it’s at because passengers were still like, Nah, and so United began to randomly select a passenger to be removed, 69-year-old David Dao. And when he didn’t comply, it got ugly. Cue the yelling, the the sobs of children, a woman crying at the security, “This is wrong!” as Dao was brutally dragged through the aisle of the aircraft. And then reappeared, bloodied, mumbling repeatedly, “I want to go home.” 

Remember back in the day, when the carrier had that award-winning marketing campaign “Fly the Friendly Skies,” which presented the airlines as prioritizing passenger comfort and accommodation above all things? They put themselves out there as being customer focused and earned themselves a stellar reputation despite its average mechanics. In fact, as a result, United grew so powerful that by the time the airline industry was suffering from several fatal blows, not least of which September 11th and the Great Recession, United was in a position to seek a bailout from the government—receiving a whopping $684 million, more than any other major airline. Fast-forward to 2017 and this air titan that built its wealth off customer service and singularly compelled Congress to give an entire industry $15 billion is now spitting in the face of the very customers that made them so rich and powerful.

It’s a PR nightmare for United, surely, but Big Airlines have been known to dig their heels in and weather the storm. Delta did it—so why can’t United? Overbooking is, sadly, standard airline-industry practice. Carriers purposely do it based on their query of statistics that includes cancellations, reschedules, and no-shows. If the math doesn’t work out and the flight remains overbooked, carriers offer incentives for volunteers. Carriers have the right to bump a passenger—it is written in the fine print of the terms and agreements signed upon purchasing airfare. But, do they have the right to bump a passenger once they’ve boarded? And forcibly removed them? At Newsweek, Cornell Law professor Jens David Ohlin argues they absolutely do not. “If the airline wants to bump you from the aircraft, it must deny you boarding,” writes Ohlin, who says they were treating Dao like a trespasser and not a passenger. There are provisions that do allow an airline to forcibly remove a passenger—e.g., if he was acting disorderly—but Dao reacted AFTER they yanked him out of his chair—where he was sitting quietly—and pulled him down the aisle. United will still likely argue that the violent encounter was actually legal as the carrier followed its procedural guidelines, or put the onus on an especially aggressive security detail—run by the Chicago Department of Aviation. That seems to be the name of the game, as the Chicago Dept. of Aviation put its officer on leave while United cleaned their passenger’s blood out the aisle and kept it moving. And they’ll have to be doing a lot of arguing, because this will most certainly be going to court. During an hourlong news conference in Chicago on Thursday, Dao’s lawyer, Thomas A. Demetrio, announced that his client had suffered a broken nose, a concussion, two knocked-out teeth, and sinus issues, which will likely require some reconstructive surgery due to this violent incident, and that a lawsuit is likely. 

Will it stop airlines from this sort of behavior? No. Because carriers like United abuse their passengers simply because they can. Airlines are private corporations, not held to government policy like TSA, and are therefore grossly unregulated. As a result, an airline “culture,” if you will, has long been developed and this culture displays a clear hierarchy based on (surprise, surprise) class and race. Flight affordability is becoming increasingly inaccessible thanks to airline carriers’ predatory airfare-pricing practices, which systematically targets customers to determine how high a carrier can jack up the ticket prices on each computer without raising a red flag. Furthermore, airlines brazenly base their customer care on how much money a traveler is willing or able to part with. Carriers pile on extraneous fees that make them billions. This includes paying for checked bags—and at present, United is considering charging for overhead bin space. First class, business class, and coach are so shamelessly defined, from facility access to line placement, from comfort to even food quality that it evokes a kind of Jim Crow for the skies: United actually recently introduced beds, actual beds, to business travelers, while coach passengers can’t even get extra legroom unless they are willing to cough up some extra cash.

Traveler care tends to vary depending on prejudices. As a young Black girl, I’ve been kicked out of first class and accused of fraud as it was assumed that a teenaged Black girl could clearly not have the financial means to afford a first-class ticket. A rep even balked when I insisted that I came from a two-parent household, let alone parents with successful careers. Coach, at times, could be a better experience—no one at least questioned my ability to afford a ticket in coach—but that did not excuse the occasional flight attendant, who always appeared gleeful to find any excuse to snatch cups from my hands, scream in my face over seatbelts and threaten to confiscate my phone if it even looked like I might disrespect FAA regulations.

At first, I was vigilant enough to file official complaints with the carriers, but it never made it further than low-level customer-service rep offering me a generic apology and a monotone reminder that my mistreatment was “for my own safety” as I’d agreed to the terms and policies when I purchased my ticket. There is no constitutional right to fly, so customers get to be consistently victimized via racial profiling, pet murdering, tarmac abandonment, losing kids, harassment of vets, harassment of minors, and pilots missing their airport by miles because if I, as an individual, don’t like the airline game then I simply do not have to participate in it, and find some other means of transportation. Enough of those experiences, and I like many travelers accept that this is the law of Airport Land.

This became particularly clear when a few fellow seasoned travelers actually cheered on Big Airlines for this mob-boss behavior. Comments like, “Why wouldn’t you get off that flight? They offered you $800!,” and “I was mature enough to give up my seat once and they offered me a first-class ticket for the next flight!,” imply a fault with a passenger’s rightful entitlement to their seat because American capitalism has shifted minds to measure human worth by fiscal wealth. It doesn’t matter what United’s customers are entitled to because there was money involved. It doesn’t matter what United’s customers are entitled to because compliance with American institutions for the sake of being American institutions is more than encouraged, but practically enforced to an oppressive nature. Being a “wealthy businessman” is the holy grail and the skeleton key, past digressions be damned. It’s what ultimately what qualified chocolate-cake-loving-not-knowing-what-country-he’s-bombing Donald Trump for a presidency. His top aides, like real-estate mogul Jared Kushner, have expressed a desire to see the U.S. government run like a corporation, its constituents treated as customers. To the leaders of the USA, and that includes Big Airlines, individual citizens are only worth what they contribute to big corporations’ bottom lines, and only by that nature, will Americans always find themselves exploited.


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