Les Abend: United isn't entirely to blame over David Dao's controversial removal from flight
Chicago airport security decided to use force to remove a resisting passenger, he says
Editor’s Note: Les Abend is a Boeing 777 captain for a major airline with 33 years of flying experience. He is a CNN aviation analyst and senior contributor to Flying magazine. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Like many, I stood in shock as I watched the cell phone video of Dr. David Dao being forcibly removed from United Express Flight 3411 at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport – and all because there were no open seats. And when United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz announced Wednesday that no one has been fired over the incident, I was certain there had to be more to the story.
While I’ve remained silent until now, as a pilot I feel compelled to offer my two cents. I should note I work for a competing airline, so I’m not going to comment on how United handled the matter, but rather discuss the role of airport security and how crew and gate agents respond to situations such as this one.
I should also emphasize that the nationwide attention to this incident – which perhaps could have been handled differently by all involved – came because of the actions of Chicago airport security, which determined physical force was a necessary means to an end. They, not the pilot or the crew, dragged Dao off the plane against his will.
Chicago Department of Aviation spokeswoman Karen Pride said that “the incident on United flight 3411 was not in accordance with our standard operating procedure,” and that the officer involved has since been placed on leave pending further review.
For those of us at the pointy end of the airplane, there is no more important task than to ensure the safety of our passengers. But gate agents are responsible for ensuring the proper boarding of passengers. Good flight crews will coordinate with agents, especially in abnormal circumstances, such as inclement weather. As a pilot, I don’t usually get involved with the boarding process, except to offer a welcome aboard greeting.
Although all the details have not yet emerged, I am willing to bet that the United Express pilots were only aware of the issue because the flight was being delayed to rectify the problem. And until the terrible scene unfolded, the crew had no reason to get involved. Certainly, once the violence began, it would not have been prudent for any member of the crew to intervene.
The good doctor’s resistance could have been interpreted as noncompliance with a crew member, which is a federal matter, but that would have been a stretch. If the noncompliance card were played, though, then it would have been a simple matter of threatening Dao with his arrest.
All that said, the gate agent was presented with a challenging situation. According to the accounts I’ve read, the agent followed both airline policy guidelines and Department of Transportation rules. Passengers were first offered voluntary removal incentives until, I suspect, the agent’s authorized limit was reached and involuntary removal became necessary.
When involuntary removal procedures are required, specific protocols are followed. And United Express is not the only airline that has such protocols. As an example, passengers with the latest check-in time or passengers without connections are often put at the top of the removal list.
But this whole nightmare occurred because a “deadheading” crew was needed for a flight departing from Louisville, Kentucky, the destination of Flight 3411. Deadheading means carrying an airline’s staff, free of charge, on a normal passenger trip. Airlines don’t have crews standing by at every airport, usually only at major hubs. In that regard, if the crew wasn’t properly repositioned, then a lot more passengers stood to be inconvenienced.
OK, so why wasn’t the deadheading crew requirement solved before the boarding process began? Before we hang the agent again, consider it might have been possible that operational personnel didn’t present the deadhead scenario until it became a last-minute decision. Perhaps a mechanical issue had occurred or the original crew misconnected because of issues on its assigned flight.
On the same subject, berating the crew members who finally boarded on United Express was just wrong. They were simply doing their jobs. It was not their decision to deadhead. Pilots and flight attendants have Federal Aviation Administration rest and duty requirements. Because of distance and time logistics, crews cannot always rely on ground transportation to get them to their next destination. They simply must fly.
Could the whole situation have been handled differently? Absolutely. Most of the time accommodation issues are solved before the boarding process begins, and if not then, at least before a passenger must be physically removed from the airplane.
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Enacting legislation to prevent airlines from overbooking flights is not going to solve the problem. It will end up costing consumers more in the long run. Empty seats cost the airlines money, and they need to recoup those losses somehow.
Trust me, I would be appalled if one of my passengers was abused in such a reckless manner. But let’s put the blame squarely where it belongs: on the Chicago airport security officers.
Let’s hope that after the visibility of this incident, all airlines will revisit their policies. Perhaps customer service will return as an industry priority. That being said, please have a little empathy for your gate agents; they’re performing a stressful job – and for peanuts.