INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Fly the Friendly Skies? Not So Much

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By GEORGE TOSHIO JOHNSTON

Before you read further, you may want to Google “David Dao United Airlines video” just for context. If you haven’t already seen the video on the news or a social media account, be forewarned: It’s distressing.

Knowing, however, that not all reading this may have Internet access or have seen the clip on the news, it started when cellphone video was posted to social media showing a United Airlines passenger screaming as he is forcibly pulled from his seat by security personnel, then dragged up the aisle as other passengers on the jam-packed airliner gasped and yelled in horror. The man’s eyeglasses are askew and from his mouth flows blood.

This happened in Chicago on Sunday, April 9, aboard United Airlines Flight 3411 before it took off. The man in the video has been identified as a physician named David Dao, 69. He is said to be Vietnamese of Chinese descent, and he resides in Elizabethtown, Ky. As of this writing, he remains hospitalized in Chicago and appears to have retained legal representation.

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The backstory to this incident is that Flight 3411 was fully booked. In other words, there were no open seats. Those aboard Flight 3411 awaiting takeoff were told that four passengers needed to voluntarily give up their seats to four United employees (actually Republic Airlines, a United affiliate) who were needed ASAP in Louisville, Ky.

In exchange for voluntarily disembarking, passengers were offered a $400 flight voucher and overnight accommodations. Most news stories said that no one volunteered, even after an $800 voucher was offered. (It’s 20-20 hindsight but I’d bet if United had offered a $5,000 voucher, someone would have stepped up — and $5,000 is nothing compared to the eventual costs to come.)

Many passengers on United Airlines Flight 3411 shot video of David Dao being dragged from the plane.

With no takers, the airline resorted to choosing four passengers to leave the plane; what criteria were used for the “random” picks remains unclear.

Meantime, a CNN story reported that that Dao and his wife initially volunteered to disembark — until they learned that the next flight to Louisville wasn’t until Monday at 2:30 p.m., so they retracted their offer, with Dao quoted as saying he was a doctor and needed to be at work. He then refused to leave the plane, so security was called in.

Like getting read your Miranda rights upon arrest, it must be said that the videos that went viral may have had more footage that was unseen, corroborating United Airlines’ CEO Oscar Munoz’s initial assertion that Dao behaved in a “disruptive and belligerent” manner. Or, maybe the cellphone didn’t record Dao slapping, punching, kicking, spitting or what have you at either the flight crew or the security officers. In other words, there may exist the possibility that this use of force was justified, and we only saw the part of the video that appeared most damning to United and the security detail. Or, maybe something happened that wasn’t recorded at all that escalated things to the point where it was deemed necessary to get the aircraft airborne by removing Dao.

Could Dao be pulling off a big scam? Maybe. But my Spidey sense tells me this ain’t so.

There was another aspect to this story, one that as a member of the news media I found disgusting, and that was news reports Dao had a “dark past” that may have included criminal activity. I’m not even going to repeat the allegations; even if true, how does that relate to this incident?

Munoz was also initially quoted as having said that since Dao was “disruptive and belligerent,” “it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security officers to help” and that “employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this.” (The Chicago Department of Aviation is on the record as saying what occurred “was not in accordance with our standard operating procedure, and the actions of the aviation security officer are obviously not condoned by the Department.”)

Since then, Munoz — who had, ironically, just been named PR Week magazine’s “Communicator of the Year” — has issued apologies for what happened, has promised to take “full responsibility” and said United “will work to make it right.”

The security officer who dragged Dao up the aisle, meantime, is on leave pending investigation. (His name is undisclosed and it remains to be seen whether he too has allegations of a “dark past.”)

In the aftermath of this incident, Fortune reported that on Tuesday, “shares of United fell as much as 6.3% in pre-market trading, dropping $1.4 billion from the now $21 billion company by market cap.”

In China, meantime, the video has stirred up a wasp’s nest of criticism aimed at United — which operates in China — with many Chinese reportedly saying on social media that the incident was racially motivated. This can’t help United’s profits, either.

Politicians and bureaucrats have also begun to weigh in. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sent an open letter to the Department of Transportation — headed by Secretary Elaine Chao — calling for an end to overbooking flights and from kicking off passengers who paid their fares and aren’t unruly or dangerous.

Regarding “overbooking,” this practice is legal. Regarding the use of physical force to remove someone who gets chosen to be kicked off a flight as done under these circumstances, that also appears to within the legal bounds of what an airline can do.

History shows, however, that what is legal isn’t necessarily right. Slavery was legal. Denying the vote to women was legal. Making children work in factories was legal. Dumping mercury and other toxic materials into waterways was legal. Executive Order 9066 was legal. Rosa Parks being told to give up her seat for a white man was legal.

I think Rosa Parks is actually an apt comparison to this incident involving David Dao.

Both paid their fares for conveyance. Both were singled out and told by authority figures they must relinquish their seats to others judged to have higher priority. Both refused. And, what happened to each of them — she was arrested, he was assaulted — were the consequences of violating the existing laws and regulations. Parks broke a law that we as a society now deem to be wrong, and she is celebrated as an icon. As for Dao, that remains to be seen.

What Parks did is now considered civil disobedience, which begat the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, which one could argue begat the Civil Rights Movement. Whether Dao’s refusal to give up the seat he paid for will spark a consumer rights movement is uncertain. The outrage is palpable. And, unlike what happened to Parks in 1955, what happened to Dao in 2017 could happen to anyone, regardless of age, gender, race, class or religion.

One thing that isn’t uncertain: David Dao likely is going to get enough money to buy his own jet. Also, if the purpose of a corporate CEO is to make money for shareholders, why does Munoz still have a job in that capacity at United? Under his watch, the airline has lost millions of dollars as its shares dropped; there will be more costs to come for legal fees and from either a monetary settlement or court-ordered restitution. His initial, inept actions exacerbated already bad publicity that it will take years to overcome. (I can’t feel too bad for him, though; the words “golden parachute” are particularly apt for a dude running an airline.)

I think United will, eventually, straighten up and fly right. This might be what it needs to take to heart a mission to provide better service. Yes, I could even envision myself someday flying United. Just not right away.

Food for Thought Dept.: The Rafu Shimpo is finally doing something that the staff has wanted for years. (Sadly, I don’t mean across-the-board raises for everyone.) On Saturday, this paper is launching its new monthly food pages, in color, one for the English section, one for the Japanese section. Hopefully it will evolve into something Rafu readers will embrace (or is that sink their teeth into?) with gusto. It will include news on restaurants, food trends, personalities, recipes, beverages and more.

Also, while details will be forthcoming, we’ll be launching something new, just in time for Mother’s Day: Tribute ads. Yes, just like for our graduation issue, readers will be able to purchase small display ads to proclaim love and admiration for good ol’ mom, who prepared bento lunches, gave hugs and encouragement, sewed patches onto scout uniforms, drove the family van here and there, doled out punishment for using wire hangers (OK, maybe not that one) and did all the other stuff moms do.

Anyone can buy Mom a box of chocolates, a dozen roses or brunch; how many people can show their mommy their appreciation in the pages of The Rafu Shimpo? Let us help you show how much your mother’s day means.

Until next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

George Toshio Johnston has written this column since 1992 and can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect policies of this newspaper or any organization or business. Copyright © 2017 by George T. Johnston. All rights reserved.

 

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