Air law expert in Philly says United was dead wrong

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A lot of people have a fear of flying. For most, until Sunday, that fear didnt include being battered and dragged down an aircraft’s aisle to open up a seat for an airline employee.

There’s dumb, there’s Congress dumb, and then there’s airline dumb. United Airlines is flying to new depths.  

First, the reported facts: United Express Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville, Ky., was overbooked. United wanted to move four employees from Chicago to Louisville to staff a later flight. The carrier made an announcement offering cash inducements for passengers to voluntarily surrender their seats.

When that didn’t work, four seats were chosen at random and the passengers were told they would have to leave. Three left, but 69-year-old David Dao refused. Three aviation security officers pulled him out of his seat, and he got a bloody mouth in the process. He appeared dazed as they dragged his limp body off the plane, while other passengers screamed and shouted in protest.

Dao was treated as a criminal.

When the facts of the incident and cellphone video got on social media, a nationwide outcry ensued. One of the security officers was suspended pending a review, but United CEO Oscar Munoz, in a defensive and ill-advised letter to United employees, said the passenger was “disruptive and belligerent,” and the crew followed “established procedures.”

I ask myself at what precise moment Dao - who said he had patients to see the next morning - became disruptive and belligerent. Perhaps when he learned he was the “lucky” winner of the off-the-plane lottery? Perhaps when the three security guards told him to vacate a seat he had bought and paid for? Perhaps when the three manhandled and bloodied him to get him off the plane.

Tuesday afternoon Munoz came to his senses, apologized, called the incident "truly horrific" and pledged a full review by April 30 "to fix what's broken so this never happens again." 

We stop the narrative for a moment to inject an unpleasant truth.

Under certain conditions, airlines can bar passengers from boarding - if the passenger is unruly or intoxicated or on a terrorist watch list - but United had no right to remove Dao, says aviation law expert Arthur Wolk, a Center City attorney who read the 45-page contract of carriage. 

Wolk says Dao absolutely had the right to the seat, and this was not a case of overbooking, he says, because all the passengers had seats. What happened to Dao was assault and battery, he says.  

There’s absolutely no humanity left in the airline business, Wolk says, adding that United routinely finishes low in surveys of passenger satisfaction. I would sue their asses off. 

Is there any question that Dao is going to sue?  John Banzhaf, a professor at the George Washington University Law School, agrees with Wolks analysis. He says United is “citing the wrong federal rule to justify its illegal request to force a passenger already boarded and seated to disembark.”

If sued, if United doesn’t settle out of court - I’m betting it will - the case may wind up in the hands of a jury. That will be 12 everyday Americans, so many of whom have had bad experiences with the airlines - the long waits, rising prices, narrow seats, too-full cabins, too-small bathrooms, indifferent flight attendants, etc. I’d call that a plaintiff’s environment.

Let me put United’s genius in context. Late last month, United employees barred a couple of young women from boarding a flight because they were wearing leggings. Yes, leggings.  

United later explained that the women were flying on “buddy passes” and violated the airline’s strict dress code for such passes. Who wrote that code - Aunt Agatha?

The airline got a black eye on social media.

In Chicago, United at first offered $400 for volunteers to leave the plane, then doubled it to $800. There were no takers, because it was Sunday night and the next flight to Louisville was Monday afternoon.  

So United decided to exercise its muscle. A short-sighted bad call.

Before this is over, I’m betting that United will find it would have been cheaper to lease a jet or hire Uber to drive its four employees the 299 miles to Louisville than to force them onto Flight 3411.

With all this in mind, does United conjure up an image of friendly skies, or of a tone-deaf woolly mammoth?

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