United dragging incident: An airline disaster years in the making?

The debate continues on 'Overtime'


The airline wanted to bump passengers to make room for its own crewmembers, so one customer was dragged from his seat as others looked on in horror.

Then a video was posted on social media.

It’s become such an epic public relations disaster that most people likely reading this know it’s about United Airlines forcing Dr. David Dao from a plane at Chicago O'Hare on Sunday.

At first, United CEO Oscar Munoz attempted to blame the passenger, describing Dao as “disruptive and belligerent.” But when the backlash hit, Munoz backtracked, issuing a statement Tuesday saying “no one should ever be mistreated this way. ”

The question many are asking is how did bloodying a passenger become, as Munoz first called it, following “established procedures?" How did the airline that promises you’ll “Fly The Friendly Skies” get to this point?

The world's first passenger flight was in 1908, when Wilbur Wright took an employee for a ride. Presumably, he said something like “hold on.” Voila!—customer service was born.


By the 1920s, U.S. airlines were employing stewards—originally a nautical term—to help passengers during the flight.  In 1930, United Airlines hired 25-year-old registered nurse Ellen Church to be the first female steward, or stewardess.

And it didn’t take long for female flight attendants to take over.  Soon major airlines had strict requirements that the women be young, thin and—even if it wasn’t always stated directly—good-looking. They were fired if they got too old, too fat, or simply married. (Needless to say, this all changed when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission got into the act.)

In the 1950s, Frank Sinatra sang “come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away,” and many consider the next couple decades to be the golden age of flight, where taking to the skies was fun and glamorous.

But there was a catch. 

A major reason flying was such as wonderful way to travel was that very few could afford it back then. Taking inflation into account, airline tickets, on average, cost twice then what they do now.  The vast majority of the public never got on a plane—it was for rich people and businessmen with expense accounts.


That changed when President Carter signed the Airline Deregulation Act in 1978, removing a lot of government control that kept flight fares artificially high. But to some, this was the end of Eden.

What happened, predictably, as prices dropped, was more people flew, and flights got more crowded.  Also, with more competition allowed by the government, it was trickier for airlines to make a profit, so they had to figure out how to squeeze extra money from passengers.

Thus they could jam in more seats, make tickets nonrefundable, charge for baggage and other formerly free services-- and pretty much anything else they could think of from water to the privelege of choosing a seat near your family.

Then came 9/11, and everything changed yet again.

With the much stricter government safety procedures that followed, airlines have even less patience with passengers acting up. Do what your told or the pilot might ground the plane and kick you off.

Which leads us to Dao’s story, where all these factors came together in a perfect storm.

The flight was packed and United needed to clear four slots for airline employees.  It offered $400 dollars in vouchers and a hotel room for anyone who’d give up a seat. When not enough people volunteered, they raised that figure to $800. No one bit, so United picked four passengers using a proprietary formula. Dao wasn’t willing to vacate, so officers from the Chicago Department of Aviation were called in. And what followed will be yet another big story in airline history. 

Are there any lessons that both fliers and airlines can learn? Absolutely. 


1. When security officials escort a passenger off a plane (especially in a rough manner), it can be a bad PR move to blame the one who got beat up.

2. No matter how you feel about Dr. Dao’s treatment, please, when someone in charge tells you to get off a plane, comply. (“Comply with me, comply, comply away.”)

3. Note to airline staff: If no one leaves at the $800 offer, why not try $1200? That's a lot less expensive than the bill from the PR management crisis firms you'll need to pay later.

4. Passengers can actually have it more like the old days—they just have to be willing to pay for it.  If not, don’t expect any major changes soon.