United Airlines and Dr. Dao: Who we should be really mad at


As the world digested the events that unfolded aboard United Airlines Flight 3411 at Chicago O’Hare, and watched the horrific video of Dr. David Dao being forcibly dragged off the plane that was supposed to be taking him home, social media was red with rage at United Airlines. People vowed never to fly with them, customers ripped up their loyalty cards, and United’s stock fell over a billion dollars in a single day.

I was just as outraged as anyone else with what I saw. The site of a 70-year-old grandfather having his head smashed against an arm rest, and then dragged semi-unconscious across the floor with blood dripping down his face, like some wild animal, should send shudders down the spine of any half-civilized person.

United Airlines clearly has a terrible policy of being able to bump paying passengers who are already sitting in their seats. They should be treating their customers better. But at the end of the day, they are a large corporation that unsurprisingly cares only for their bottom line. They nickel and dime their customers and employees at every opportunity, which has sadly become the norm in the airline industry.

The real incident, however, which led to this whole debacle, was actually the work of the Chicago Aviation Police. Those officers walked onto the plane and resorted to violence in order to remove a passenger who was understandably furious that he was being asked to leave the airplane in order to seat other people. The officers felt that it was within their remit to forcibly remove the passenger in this way, despite the fact that he was someone who had cleared TSA and was just a normal paying customer seated in their seat a few minutes earlier.

For anyone who says that Dr. Dao should have just complied with police orders, that’s a reasonable point, but one must also ask what policing manual the officers’ technique of removing him came from? Whether or not they were “official” Chicago Police is irrelevant. They wear police uniforms, carry badges, and are paid by the State. To all intents and purposes, they are a form of police to the general public. They should have known better, and worked to defuse the situation and calm things down (some may argue that they should have helped Dr. Dao argue his case with the airline, or even at the other extreme, that it’s not their duty to be dealing with customer service issues in the first place).

Even in health care, with minimal training, doctors and nurses encounter situations of belligerence and aggressiveness every day in hospitals. But we attempt to calm things down, not escalate them — because that’s what professionals do. The fact is that had the Chicago Aviation Police handled things in a more civil manner, this story would have barely made the news (for their part, their department have said that these officers did not follow protocol, and thus rightly suspended them).

Over the next few days, several stories surfaced about what a bad guy Dr. David Dao might be. Having read some of these — if what I’ve seen is true, do I think that Dr. Dao is probably a bit of a piece of work himself whose past behavior is a disgrace to the medical profession? Yes, I do. Do I personally think Dr. Dao should have just complied, walked off the plane, and then kicked up a fuss later on (like most people would)? Yes, I do. But do I think any of this justifies his nose and teeth being broken and then dragged away on the floor, in full public view in broad daylight? No, I do not.

Social media kind of gets a bad rep sometimes because so many people are hooked on it these days, but it’s actually wonderful we live in an age where individuals/organizations/governments have to live with the constant knowledge that inappropriate or nonsense behavior can be filmed anytime — for the whole world to see, and then have to stand up to the court of public opinion.

If I wanted to live in a country where authority and law enforcement have the ability to display open, excessive brutality towards people they perceive are not “complying with orders,” and be unanswerable to the media and the general public, then I would move to Russia or Zimbabwe. The whole idea of living in a country like America, or other Western democracies, is that the rule of law applies to everyone, and law enforcement are supposed to be the “good guys.” The ones who are professional, held to the highest standards, and remain civilized and decent — even when faced with people who aren’t. In other words, they don’t lower themselves to the level of the common criminal or street thug. Sadly, in this case, they didn’t stick to those expected standards.

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician and author of three books, including Thomas Jefferson: Lessons from a Secret Buddha. He is the founder and director, HealthITImprove, and blogs at his self-titled site, DocThinx.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com


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