I think we have all watched with dismay this week when a passenger on United Express 3411 was dragged forcibly from cabin after refusing to leave after an overbooking occurred. This incident and the resultant physicality has been a PR disaster for United but could it have been avoided?
Overbooking of Planes
To understand how we got into this position, we need to explore why airlines overbook flights. All airlines operate some sort of overbooking policy and the percentage of seats available for over booking depends on the popularity of the flight, frequency of the route, class of travel, and historic percentage of “no-shows”. It is a balancing act played by airlines and in the majority of cases it is managed amicably through volunteers being offloaded and in a way that the passenger receives adequate compensation. Where it can’t be managed through volunteers then every airline has a written policy that that ensures fair and consistent treatment of customers; United is no different (United Policy).
You can limit your chance of being “bumped” by doing things like turning up early or by checking-in online getting a seat allocation. Also, being a member of a frequent flier programme can help limit your chance of being selected with some airlines. It is not a raffle, every airline has a policy and should stick to it.
What was slightly different to normal overbooking on this flight was that the airline was trying to displace revenue passengers with positioning crew. In most airlines, the process of positioning crew isn’t something that is done on a whim. It is normally planned and seats are blocked out for this purpose prior to boarding. We are aware that this positioning was to operate a flight in Louisville but could it have waited? Nonetheless, It seems that this reactive situation led to the decision to offer $800 to volunteers but none were forthcoming.
United indicated that without volunteers coming forward passengers would be randomly chosen and offloaded. This appears to be contrary to their policy. Additionally, it appears that their own process of providing reasoning and written copy of rights to selected passengers which is detailed on their own website wasn’t followed to the letter either. Despite all this, United is perfectly entitled to deny any passenger carriage and this is entirely lawful.
What transpired was that Dr David Dao was selected to leave the aircraft to accommodate the crew. Dr Dao refused to accede to the requests of the customer agent to disembark and law enforcement were called.
The incident was attended by 3 officers from Chicago’s Department of Aviation Police Department. These are State certified police officers but unusually for the United States are an unarmed department. They are actually more akin to an aviation security force that we would see in Europe rather than a more traditional police force. These officers asked Dr Dao to leave the aircraft and this is where the video that has gone viral starts. Dr Dao refuses to comply with the order to leave but rather tries to reason with the Officers as to why He should stay on the aircraft and the fact that he wishes to take legal advice on the validity of the offload. It is on record from several witnesses that although matter of fact, Dr Dao did not raise his voice or act in a threatening way to any officer. It is at this point the officer grabs Dr Dao and wrestles him into the aisle and drags him to the front of the aircraft. In doing so Dr Dao strikes his head on the armrest causing an injury. Once at the front of the aircraft Dr Dao is released and runs to the back of the aircraft.
The appropriate use of force is something that I know features highly in the teaching of police officers of both sides of the Atlantic. There is a process called the Use of Force Continuum and although there are differing models; the tenet is that you use the proportionate and legal level of force to counter any threat to affect an arrest. Although this is an escalating scale most police officers will look to use their experience and skill to de-escalate the situation where time and situation allows rather than escalate. Indeed, similar wording is actually in the Chicago PD use of force policy, which trains this Force and provides its armed back-up.
Dr Dao would be in classified under the use of force continuum as a passive, perhaps bordering on aggressive, resistor. This would justify intervention such as those described as empty-hand submission techniques rather than the aggressive hard control techniques that were used and caused such Global outrage.
Regardless of what we consider to be reasonable in the circumstances, we must remember that Dr Dao has refused to comply with law enforcement officers command. Although that itself is not necessarily unlawful it does escalate the use of force continuum and could be deemed as obstruction of an officer. This could have led to Dr Dao’s eventual arrest undoubtedly.
Legal arguments and the rights of the airline to deny boarding aside, we should ask was this course of action prudent and in the interests of United. Many may say yes, as there were other passengers who would be inconvenienced if the crew didn’t travel; others including United shareholders would perhaps disagree with that having seen 5% knocked of the value of their stock and the immeasurable damage to the brand. The vast majority will just be appalled that the treatment of a passenger in this manner.
We watched a plethora of armchair experts proffering opinion of who was to blame yesterday and making judgements. Indeed, I am myself making some judgements in this blog, but I do so with over two decades of experience from inside the aviation industry and with law enforcement provenance; rather than aviation “experts” some of whom have no provenance in the industry at all.
So, who do I think is to blame for the entire debacle? The populist opinion would be to blame United for the overbooking and poor crew management; or the police for their apparent overreaction to a non-compliant passenger. Less mentioned is the actions of Dr Dao and his non-compliance with law enforcement which led to the physical confrontation. In my balanced view, all played a significant role in allowing the holes in the swiss cheese (James Reasons Model) to align causing the incident to unfold live on social media.
My final thoughts on the incident are that there were significant opportunities to place the customer first as per United’s own customer commitment. The entire situation can be summed up in two words; entirely avoidable.