Last Sunday, a security officer dragged a 69-year-old physician, David Dao, off a United Airlines plane at O’Hare Airport. Dr. Dao was injured in the altercation. The extent and severity of his injuries remains unclear, but are likely to receive close attention when he sues. Video of the incident ignited an internet firestorm.
The past week has occasioned thousands of tweets, countless newspaper op-eds and commentaries about how lousy airlines generally are, and how United Airlines in particular needs to raise its game.
A week later, I fear the real lesson is being lost.
So much of this commentary tied into that iconic middle-class grievance: the indignities associated with economy-class air travel, and the emblematic disparities between the lousy bag of peanuts provided in Coach and the lavish amenities provided behind the curtain in business-class and coach.
Although I wish United Airlines gave better service, I’m not feeling the same sense of grievance that wealthy airline passengers pay hefty premiums for visibly better and more lavish service, tiered airline fares and service may be the least harmful expressions of inequality in American life. After all, we all board the same plane operated by the same pilot. We all arrive at almost exactly the same time. And some sucker in business class helps cover fixed-costs for the flight by paying $500 more than I do for the privilege of a nicer meal, a hot towel, and an electric outlet. Even the overbooking serves an important economic purpose, too.
I kindof wish we had the same tiered services in American healthcare. The rich patients would have nice private rooms with magazines and nicer food. Maybe Hospital Singapore would appeal, Fox and Friends style, to rich people by hiring pretty young women staff for the fancy rooms. Meanwhile the poor people would have grittier waiting rooms with Jenny Jones on the TV. You might share a room with a talkative patient with an annoyingly loud family. But rich and poor people alike would go to the same hospital, have their critical operations performed by the exact same surgeons, who would have almost 100% perfect safety records. Everyone would receive equally proficient postoperative care, and poor people would pay markedly less.
The big problem last Sunday was much simpler than bad service. A passenger and the airline had a disagreement. The passenger sat there and refused to leave. Most people believe Dr. Dao was in the right. He was already on the plane. He had patients to see. He had understandable reasons to be upset.
Who was right is basically irrelevant. United initially claimed Dr. Dao was belligerent. They later backed off that claim. Dao apparently had some issues with his medical license, prompting the sort of “he’s no angel” stories one expects when young minority men get into it with police. Dr. Dao was noncompliant, maybe angry and belligerent. But the important fact is that he was just sitting there, posing no physical threat to anyone. Security staff made a tragic mistake by putting their hand on him, even if he were belligerent, and even if United was completely justified in asking for his seat.
My own work includes efforts to help police deal more safely and effectively with individuals in behavioral crisis. Our society expects officers to act with remarkable restraint in their encounters with individuals who display much more frightening behaviors than Dr. Dao did, in far less controlled settings. That’s a huge challenge when officers are called, for example, to a street corner to calm a severely-mentally-ill man waving a baseball bat. In such difficult situations, it’s crucial for police to effectively deploy time, distance, and cover to keep everyone safe, not least the person in behavioral crisis and the officers themselves.
As the caretaker of a 260-pound intellectually disabled man, I have more than a passing interest in these issues. ’m unusually sensitized to such dilemmas. Consider the case of Robert Ethan Saylor, a twenty-six-year-old man living with Down syndrome. Mr. Saylor and his attendant went to see Zero Dark Thirty at a Maryland theater. After the movie was over, he returned to his original seat without paying to watch the movie again. He was asked to leave. He becoming increasingly agitated and belligerent, and refused to leave. Against the advice of Mr. Saylor’s attendant, the theater manager called three off-duty sheriff’s deputies. They quickly got physical, trying to drag the 300-lb Saylor out of his seat. He ended up pinned under them in cuffs. He suffered a fractured larynx, and died.
Robert Saylor’s was an extreme case, but hardly an outlandish one. And the physical setup on that United plane reflected a reasonably common dilemma facing law enforcement. Let’s imagine United Airlines was completely justified in asking Dr. Dao to deplane, and to ask security staff to evict him. Things didn’t have to play out as they did.
I’m not particularly bothered that airlines occasionally bump passengers from overbooking. Although bad airline service is a genuine problem, it’s pretty low on my list of matters requiring urgent policy attention. The important thing is that someone got hurt. And this was so unnecessary, too.
Imagine these officers had stepped back to handle the situation differently. Perhaps they could have appealed to the other passengers: “This gentleman obviously wishes to stay. Can someone, anyone, here do me the personal favor of taking the same $800 to get on the next flight. That way, we can all get on with our day, with no one the worse for it?” Perhaps, if that didn’t work, they might have upped the financial ante. Or they might have found some other solution.
Police sometimes need to use force. That’s justified to keep people safe, not to ensure someone’s compliance with some airlines overbooking algorithm or passenger service agreement. When police put their hands on an agitated noncompliant person, things can go sideways horribly quickly, sometimes with more horrible and permanent consequences than the public humiliation United is now experiencing. That’s a much bigger and more urgent concern than the crummy service and overbooking one might experience in coach.