This Doctor Says #BoycottUnitedAirlines

Watching events unfold at United Airlines over the last few days have filled me with shock, awe, and horror. As a result of this public relations disaster, their motto “flying the friendly skies” has turned into “not enough seating, prepare for a beating.” America stands as a beacon of freedom from oppression. In my opinion, United Airlines was an iconic American company until last Sunday.

That ended Sunday.

Much of the backlash was initially a result of the lackluster attempt at an apology from the CEO of United Airlines, Oscar Munoz. Despite three attempts, he still appears rather oblivious to the real suffering of Dr. Dao. Physicians have been taught that the best thing to do in the face of a medical error is to be honest, forthcoming, and apologize; it must be genuine and from the heart — acknowledge our blunder, take responsibility for our mistake, and convey our sincere regret. Executives at United Airlines would do well to heed these words.

According to scientific research, there are six ingredients which constitute a proper apology – 1. Expression of regret, 2. Explanation of what went wrong, 3. Acknowledgement of responsibility, 4. Declaration of repentance, 5. Offer of repair, and 6. Request for forgiveness. The request for forgiveness is missing from apologies offered by this corporation.

Describing the violence caught on video as “re-accommodating customers” was offensive. Engaging in “blaming the victim” by describing the man who was dragged, while screaming and bleeding, up the aisle and off the airplane as both “disruptive and belligerent” made matters worse. However, as United Airlines watched their market value plummet by $250 million, this story began to take on an even more shameful context.

Does the background of a fare-paying passenger matter when evaluating an infringement on his rights? No. His “troubled past” should be completely irrelevant as to how United Airlines handled the forcible removal of a ticketed passenger unwilling to give up his seat. United Airlines actions are reprehensible and unjustified. We must not allow ourselves to be distracted by the salacious details of Dr. Dao’s life story; unless we are ready to risk exposure of our own personal secrets should we refuse to give up our paid seat someday.

The victim in this story is the passenger and could have just as easily been any one of us. More troubling to me is the thought Dr. Dao might be suffering from PTSD, in my opinion, based on the video footage. The fear conveyed in his guttural scream coupled with his passive demeanor as he was dragged down the aisle of the airplane indicated Dr. Dao seemed familiar with the brutality of forced compliance. At no point on the video is Dao seen attacking the security officers. In fact, he was later observed standing in the aisle saying quietly, “I want to go home, I want to go home.”

However, Dr. Dao’s hometown paper, the Courier-Journal, capitalized on the opportunity to break a story, noting he was convicted of a drug-related offense more than a decade ago. As if implying United Airlines was vindicated in their mistreatment of him; in effect, victimizing him twice. His medical license was suspended by the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure and reinstated in 2016. Public documents indeed confirmed Dr. Dao carries a diagnosis of PTSD stemming from his traumatic childhood and additional distress experienced while working as a physician after coming to America.

Dr. Dao initially agreed to disembark the overbooked flight, from news reports, and when he discovered the next flight was not until Monday afternoon, he expressed the need to return to work. He is recorded on video saying “I can’t be late, I’m a doctor. I’ve got to be there at 8am tomorrow.” His license is restricted with supervisory requirements. It is highly likely unexplained absences could harm his chances of a full return to an occupation he dearly loves.

Research has found (Blair, 2000), 85% of Asian refugees have experienced horrible traumas prior to immigrating to the United States, including starvation, torture, and losing family members to war. A report released by the Surgeon General’s Office in 2001, reveals the effect culture, race, and ethnicity can have on mental health. Suffering from a mental health disorder can be highly stigmatizing and reflect poorly on one’s “family honor,” making it difficult to accept. Historical events and circumstances many individuals of Asian descent have lived through can be extremely traumatic. One study found as many as 70% of Southeast Asian immigrants suffer from PTSD.

Dr. Dao graduated from the University of Medicine of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, in 1974, a tumultuous time in Vietnam before the fall of Saigon in 1975. He very likely has had experiences many of us born and raised in America cannot fathom. His lawyer confirmed as much this morning on a live news conference. This man is the father of 5 children, four of whom are physicians, and he is married to a pediatrician. He has clearly worked very hard and overcome numerous obstacles in his life. He has atoned for his own missteps while holding his head high and that deserves our respect. According to public record, he complied satisfactorily with The Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure recommendations for rehabilitation and requirements to have his license reinstated. Dr. Dao embodies a quintessential American story.

Let us return for a moment to United Flight 3411 last Sunday evening where this man was physically assaulted as he was forcibly removed from the airplane he had been initially allowed to board. Can you imagine his fear and anxiety as he was “selected” to be evicted? When three large men returned to force him from his seat, what was HIS subjective experience? Even, the passengers who stood up for Dr. Dao were emotionally disturbed witnessing this horrifying event.

How more emotionally provocative would it be if one already suffered from PTSD, anxiety, or depression? If the airline industry cannot make allowances for individuals in this country who are singled out unfairly on the basis of age, race, or even disability, then everyday Americans must stand up for those individuals being victimized who are unable to do so for themselves. This could have happened to any one of us.

Nelson Mandela once said, “To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.” A second hero in this story, in addition to Dr. Dao, is the woman who said, “No. This is wrong. Oh My God. Look at what you are doing to him.” Thank you for lending your support to someone being wronged.

If we as a nation lose sight of our humanity, we will lose everything for which we stand. Corporations are not people. We should bring United Airlines to their knees until they truly comprehend the damage they have done, mentally, physically, and emotionally to this innocent 69 year old physician and man. United Airlines should do more than apologize profusely; they should ask forgiveness of Dr. Dao, his family, our nation, and the world.


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25 replies »

  1. “because they control 70% of the departures out of Newark Airport”

    Tough to shop around. Market dominance seems to be United’s gotcha strategy. We noticed that when in Newark, we also noticed the attitude of United’s Newark employees who clearly knew they had the monopoly.

    I still want to fly Lufthansa when available, but next time I’ll book with Southwest to get to an airport that Lufthansa flies out of. Just have to allow enough lay over to make the connecting flight.

  2. My wife and I only fly United mainly because they control 70% of the departures out of Newark Airport and we have their credit card co-branded with Chase that entitles us to one free checked bag each which would otherwise cost $25 per bag. We’ve had a couple of flights cancelled and experienced various delays over the years but probably no worse than average for the industry. Even flying by private jet is subject to weather delays. That comes with the territory.

    The leg room in coach class is pretty tight but I don’t like to buy the extra leg room unless the flight is longer than three hours which most of ours are not. We settle for a soft drink and a little bag of pretzels rather than buy an overpriced sandwich on the plane but that’s part of the tradeoff for lower fares. You get what you pay for.

    Yes this incident was a huge black eye for the company but they and the rest of the industry will learn from it and I’ll bet it won’t happen again. At least the fixes are easy and straightforward. If I were a long term investor in United’s stock, which I am not, I would not be a seller at this time. They will remain one of the big three U.S. airlines.

  3. Steve, as I said above, he does indeed have a diagnosis of PTSD. That is documented quite well which is why I felt comfortable discussing it.

  4. Peter, looks like we agree on something after all. I am boycotting with you.

  5. We’ve been boycotting United for a few years now. Learned our lesson on the return
    trip-from-hell from Brussels. All legs of the flight by United were a disaster starting with the cancelled flight in Brussels. United routinely cancels flights at the last minute if not enough people are booked to make the flight profitable enough We got hooked into United by booking with Lufthansa, which United is a partner. We wanted Lufthansa planes, which is one of the great airlines to fly, but all flights came as United.

    There is no culture of customer service or consideration at United. They pride themselves on arrogance. A friend of mine who flies all the time for business has one rule, never fly United.

  6. Good points meltoots. I do the same thing when I travel. However, on the guy acting like he was having a tantrum, that was my first thought, then my second was PTSD. This the kind of “over-reaction” we used to see with PTSD patients in the military. I have no idea which is the case. Also, I am not sure why every time something bad happens when a large corporation is involved it necessitates payouts of millions of dollars.

  7. Two people I respect have misunderstood what I said so I am sorry I wasn’t clear enough.

    I will tell you that my mom who is the most polite woman was thrown off an airplane shortly after 9/11. At the time she was in her late 80’s The plane was delayed on the ground for about 6 hours. It appears the airline probably knew that the delay would be a long time. She went over to one of the people at the gate and told them they should have informed everyone that the delay would have been that long. She said she would have gone back to her son, slept and returned the next day for her trip home.

    She boarded the plan, sat and like she always does she opened a book and started reading. The same man came to her interrupting her reading and said ” will you be good on this plane”? She was startled by the comment and asked what he meant. It was then he threw her off the plane..

    We decided not to pursue the problem as this type of problem was occurring all over because of 9/11 fears. It wouldn’t do any good to add fuel to a fire that was raging at the time.

    The problem is that some people when given power abuse it. That I believe is what happened on the plane. People get lost with their power to tell others what to do. The untrained police decide to use brute force instead of intellect and we end up with the type of problem we see. Additionally, I wonder if the man being Asian might have heightened the brutality as prejudice is never far away.

    What United did was stupid and will self correct benefitting travelers on other airlines. I am more concerned with the airline police who may have used unnecessary force.

  8. Allan, now I understand better what you were saying. You are correct that his personal details are of no relevance to how he was inappropriately treated on the United flight.

  9. Meltoots…. I agree with much of what you are saying overall. Many of your points are right on. I actually travel with my family Saturday – Saturday for the same reason as you. My mom said the same thing about walking off if 3 police officers were standing over her as you said. But you know what? Why are three police officers standing over you when you have purchased a ticket to fly on an airplane? It is ridiculous.
    There are a lot of lessons to be learned. For me, the most important is to remember we are all human beings, fallible, vulnerable, and we bring our life experience to the table. Sometimes, it is worthwhile for a corporation to take a step back and reassess if an individual is struggling. I hope that is what happens based on public reaction.
    As for a boycott, we have a very good alternative airline here in the Pacific NW, Alaska, and before this I might have been willing to fly United. Honestly, because I have good alternatives, I will pay more to fly someone else. I believe we are too complacent sometimes and forget to vote with our feet and pocketbooks. Your trip will probably be extra nice… and I wish that for you and your family 🙂 Thanks as always for your comments.

  10. Maybe with something so inflammatory I wasn’t clear enough so thanks for saying so.

    Just for the record, I don’t think any of these reports about Dao’s behavior should have been released. There is a right to release them, but even then such a release should be fully documented and not rushed. His personality has little to do with how we judge United’s conduct.

  11. My bad then. You’re off the hook.

    But in my defense it was this line that misled me:

    “Take note of the fact that the person in question (revealed in some newsources) is supposedly not the fine doctor you assume. It is said he lost his licensce and was dealing in drugs.”

    We need a whole new thread about this “was reportedly dealing in drugs” business.

    Much more complicated than crusading district attorneys and the media would have you believe ..

    I’d like to know what criteria the editors at USA Today and the Courier News used when they decided to publish his background.

  12. John, my point was just the opposite. Jim pointed out he (Dao) was a doctor and should get special consideration. ” Should a Doctor who must be back at work receive special concern over others? I’d say yes.”

    I took the same person and presented some other facts about him to demonstrate that we should not be evaluating the individual harmed rather the airline. ***”Should his status or anything else about the individual involved be taken into account regarding his settlement? Without proof of harm to another should he receive special concern? I don’t think so for either question.” ***

    I accused United and the airline for what happened. I didn’t blame the individual though he holds some culpability since he didn’t leave the plane when legal authorities legally told him to. That may enter into the court case, but doesn’t relieve United or the airport authorities of their responsibilities.

    I won’t disagree with your statement “This is how many journalists think.”, however, it is clear that what I said between the *** is quite different than what you interpreted. I pointed out there can be two sides of this or any story Jim’s positive view of Dao and some of the press’s negative views. Neither view relieves United of their responsibility.

  13. You’re judging “him as human being” on the basis of a fifteen minute investigation by a pair of reporters who found a ruling against Dao in the official record.

    Do we know anything of the merits of the case?

    Do we know who pressed what charge? What the defense was?

    This is how many journalists think.

  14. I agree with you Niran. Who he is has little to do with how we should assess damages and how he should be treated. That was my point. We should concern ourselves with the actions of United not the individual’s personal history. (I’m sure more will be revealed if this case ever comes to open court which is doubtful.)

    You added something I didn’t know, PSTD. That may or may not have played a part because those with PSTD can act erratically. Some police know how to handle all types of personalities. Based upon the results it appears the airport police were not adequately skilled so along with United one has to add the airport to the case. The police, I do not believe are United’s responsibility.

    United handled their affairs foolishly from the start and is paying a big price. They weren’t upfront about their policies and I believe this incident will likely cause change throughout the industry. If it were me I would consider replacing people that lost their perspective in not recognizing that they were dealing with human beings.

    As far as Dr. Dao, his license and other personal things, I don’t sufficiently trust what is presently available. As you say he deserved some leeway, but I think that applies to all of us. As far as his license… that is inconsequential in this case, but important to any people receiving his care.

  15. Before everyone jumps on me here, including you MommyDoc,as you are one of my faves.
    Here are things that also jump to my mind:
    1. We do have a “culture” with a percentage of law enforcement that are just waiting for their chance to manhandle someone, kick them while they are down, take a shot at them, throw a punch, use their “training”, even if the situation does not require it. Love my law enforcement folks but all of us know there are some in their crew just waiting for the chance to do this. They have to address it at some point.
    2. United, Law Enforcement, all need to learn that the day of getting away with excessive force, silly policies, well, its going to be video’d, its going to be on youtube. If you noticed, a TON of cameras were rolling as this happened.
    3. We all just learned that if you can take a beating, your pay day went up from a $1000 voucher, to many millions (I suspect). So there will be many more refusals and confrontations coming. But the chance of a good beating is less for now on planes.
    The airlines will have to start sweetening the pot or expect more refusals.
    4. If you want to hear how pathetic I am…When I travel, I do all I can to prepare for this. As a surgeon, I do all I can to return on Sat when I have OR cases on Mon. I am doing this for spring break with my kids and wife, we are going from Sat to Sat. It is what it is. If for some reason that Sat return is impossible, then I do all I can to return on the first flight Sun. Just in case I have to make other arrangements to return. I have MANY times, driven, flown multiple legs, changed airlines, etc. to get back on time. This flight was from Chicago to Louisville. 4.5 hours driving the speed limit. I’d say thats doable. Stinks, but doable.
    5. I must say, the man did look a bit like a temper tantrum 3 y o not wanting to go. Just being honest here. He was asked to get off the flight before he was dragged off. I’m not saying the beating was necessary but it struck me that he could have just walked off when he had 3 police standing over him. Don’t jump on me here, but we are talking about leaving a flight, there are other options.
    6. I also heard that the flight was not necessarily overbooked but they wanted a UA crew to get on the flight at the expense of removing paid passengers. Now if anyone has access to flights and methods to get people to other airports its UA. UA needs to work harder there.

    There are a lot of lessons to be learned here. And a RCA (root cause analysis) is a great idea as mentioned before. UA will learn from this debacle. And it will be expensive. In this country, it seems that blood has to be shed before change happens. Sad but true. So am I boycotting United? No. Do I think EVERYONE at UA is pro-beating and this may happen to me? No. Boycott would only be necessary if their was a refusal to learn from it. I don’t see that happening. I actually think my trip (on UA this week) will be extra nice!

  16. Allan, he completed all rehabilitation and recommendations by the Kentucky Licensing board. His license has been reinstated. He should not be dragged through the mud because he wanted to fly home and refused to give up his seat. I am not cutting him slack because he is a physician; I believe a 69 year old man (human being) who suffers from PTSD for quite a few reasons including trauma leaving Vietnam after the fall of Saigon deserves some leeway as to his reaction and his life story, as do we all.

  17. See and physicians are taught to just apologize and acknowledge what they did or did not do. Be honest and it minimizes exposure far better.

  18. I like the definition of an “Institution” by Elinor Ostrom: “An institution can be described as the rules that humans use to organize all forms of repetitive and structured interactions, including within families, neighborhoods, markets, firms, markets, sports leagues, churches, private associations, and governments at all scales. Individuals interacting within rule-structured situations face choices regarding the actions and strategies they may take, leading to consequences for them selves and others. The opportunities and constraints individuals face in any particular situation, the information they obtain or are excluded from, and how they reason about the situation are all affected by the rules or absence of rules that structure the situation. If the individuals who are crafting and modifying the rules do not understand how a particular combination of rules affects the actions and outcomes in a particular ecological or cultural environment, rule changes may produce unexpected and, at times, DISASTROUS RESULTS.” Obviously, the United leadership had never given the over booking issue the ultimate question. What is the worst thing that could happen and how would we train every one to prevent it? Obviously, it wasn’t asked and their was no plan to prevent any other ultimate disaster! Sounds like another industry I know.

  19. “But he was a doctor. Should a Doctor who must be back at work receive special concern over others? I’d say yes.”

    Should his status or anything else about the individual involved be taken into account regarding his settlement? Without proof of harm to another should he receive special concern? I don’t think so for either question.

    Take note of the fact that the person in question (revealed in some newsources) is supposedly not the fine doctor you assume. It is said he lost his licensce and was dealing in drugs.

    United screwed up big time and the airport police in my eyes weren’t sufficiently trained for the job so I wonder if United will be the only one to suffer. I wonder if they shouldn’t have called in the city police.

    All that being said United handled things miserably and didn’t even offer the full amount that could be offered which I believe is $1,300. They only offered $800 and therefore saved $2,000 and that $2,000 will cost them millions if not more if one checks the stock ticker.

    They could have sent their employees by car to their destination instead of taking those seats. That is the problem when people’s heads explode with the feeling of power.

  20. it NOT that a lawyer would think it was legally defensible. The lawyer would try to minimize the legal exposure by “coaching” the CEO to avoid full admission of liability, dah dah. Bad idea, but I’m guessing that’s what happened here.

  21. Well the missteps of his advisory team will be their undoing. Seriously, what lawyer could think this was legally defensible?

  22. Barry I agree with you completely. It seems Kim common sense solutions would easily have saved the day. What happened to common sense and decency?

  23. If I’m the UAL CEO, the most important thing I can do for customers, employees and the corporation itself now is to order a root cause analysis of what went wrong and develop operational fixes that will ensure that an incident like this never happens again. It appears to me that the potential fixes are relatively simple and straightforward. If it were up to me, I would just keep raising the incentive to give up a seat to however much it takes to get four volunteers and I would offer either a voucher for future travel or a gift card of equal value since travel vouchers are not very valuable to customers who fly only occasionally and they’re not transferable either.

    Alternatively, customers could be invited to name their own price that would induce them to give up their seat and travel on the next available flight instead. If four volunteers are needed, then the fourth lowest bid would be the price all four people would receive again either in the form of a voucher for future travel or a gift card. It’s not rocket science. It’s common sense which seems to be surprisingly lacking at too many companies these days.

    What should happen to the security officers who roughed up Dr. Dao is a discussion for another day.

  24. Good and timely article Niran. This was mishandled by United on so many different fronts. I’m guessing (just guessing) that Dr. Dao was not one of the selected because of his race/nation of origin. But he was a doctor. Should a Doctor who must be back at work receive special concern over others? I’d say yes. Their care can be critically important. On the other hand, if it were me, there is little that I do that can’t wait a day or three regardless of how inconvenient. I’d still be upset, but that’s my problem to get over.

    Here’s what I think happened with CEO Munoz. He probably was horrified by the event. But then the crisis PR “team” and the lawyers descended on him and muted what otherwise might have been a full throated and sincere apology. The lawyers (and I am one) and the PR people wanted to show off how important they are in a crisis, and protect their CEO and their corporate client. In the process, however, they missed the forest for the trees, and United will suffer far more serious consequences than what any lawsuit from the Doctor would have wrought. Sometimes, CEOs must lead and not be tethered by those who hedge their bets for a living.