United or Divided?

On Sunday, April 9th, United Express flight 3411 was about to depart from Chicago O'Hare airport, however, the flight was oversold.  A passenger, Dr. David Dao, was told he had to give up his seat and refused.  Law enforcement was called and he was dragged from the plane.

After reviewing a lot of the available information, I've got a few opinions on United Airlines, United's CEO, the police, the passengers, Dr. Dao, and the media.  I will cover all of them.  However, what I have to say next might shock you: 

In general, United Airlines followed the proper course of action, and Dr. Dao was wrong.

Let's briefly review what happened:

  1. United Airlines personnel boarded passengers despite the fact that Flight 3411 was oversold, apparently without first confirming volunteers to give up their seats.
  2. It may not be the oversold situation that caused the problem.  It may be that to keep other flights on schedule United needed four seats for their employees.
  3. United asked for volunteers, offering $400 a seat.  No takers.
  4. United asked for volunteers, offering $800 a seat.  No takers.
  5. United then chose four people to give up their seats, most likely based on their United MileagePlus status.  Those four people were notified.
  6. Three passengers left the plane, disappointed but respectful of others, giving up their seats as requested by United.
  7. Dr. Dao refused to leave the plane even though he was asked repeatedly to give up his seat.
  8. When United's personnel could not convince Dr. Dao to leave, they followed policy and asked law enforcement for assistance.
  9. Dr. Dao refused, even when warned by police that he would be dragged from the plane.
  10. Law enforcement pulled Dr. Dao from his seat and dragged him from the plane because he refused to stand up.  In the process, Dr. Dao's head hit an armrest and he suffered a blow to his face, causing bleeding, a concussion, and broken teeth.
  11. Some of the other passengers were shocked.  Videos were taken and later posted online.
  12. A social media storm ensued in which many people raged at United for the incident, with some even cutting up their United mileage cards and posting pictures to Twitter.
  13. The mainstream media further inflated the reach of the story to increase their viewers / readers, and justify the cost of their advertising.
  14. United CEO Oscar Munoz responded at least four times about the situation.  First he said that United was trying to "resolve the situation;" then described Dr. Dao as "disruptive and belligerent;" then he apologized two days later and said "no one should ever be mistreated this way."
  15. United is now offering full refunds for every passenger on the flight.  Accepting a refund may be pursuant to some restrictions.
  16. Dr. Dao is considering a lawsuit against the airline and the city of Chicago.
  17. At least three airport police officers have been suspended over the incident.

Now, let's consider some important questions because GREAT leaders ask the right questions.

First, is United Airlines the only airline that overbooks flights?

No.  All or almost all airlines overbook their flights in anticipation of no-shows (passengers who do not show-up for their flights).

Second, why do airlines overbook flights?

Because people do not show up for their flights and airlines want to avoid flying with empty seats.  To keep costs low, airlines can (a) over-book flights in the expectation that some people will not show up;  (b) increase the penalty for no-shows;  or (c) raise airfares.  Which of the three would you prefer?  The first option is the only one that does not raise your costs to fly.

Third, did United Airlines personnel follow company policy and the law?

Yes, it appears they did except in two areas:

  1. They should have identified volunteers before boarding the plane.  This is a Dept. of Transportation rule.
  2. They could have offered the maximum reimbursement for volunteers ($1,350 per seat), which is also a DOT rule.  See the same link above about flyer rights for details.

Overbooking flights is completely legal and United is within their rights to ask (and force) passengers give up their seats if a flight is overbooked.

We need to recognize that no United personnel touched Dr. Dao.  Law enforcement removed him from the plane after asking him to leave and warning him of what they would do.

Based on the information above, I have a few conclusions and suggestions.

United Airlines

You may not like it, but solely blaming United Airlines for the incident is wrong.  For the most part, United personnel behaved properly, respectfully, wisely, and followed procedure.

Could United Airlines have done anything different to avoid this situation?  Absolutely!  We don't know everything United personnel did, but it seems like they could have been a little more creative in their approach and less "by the book."  

For instance, as mentioned above they could have offered the full amount for volunteer seats - $1,350.  However, that may still not have worked.

They could have asked someone else to leave after Dr. Dao refused (he refused multiple times), appealing to their desire to help the doctor.

They could have simply told the passengers, "We're not leaving until someone volunteers to stay."  Then they could have stood their ground until someone caved or someone called their bluff (they probably can't pull that trick for too long).

United personnel followed procedure for the most part.  None of their mistakes justify Dr. Dao's behavior. 

The primary mistake United personnel made was boarding people before confirming volunteers.  It is much less difficult to remove people from a flight who have already agreed to do so.  Demanding volunteers once people are in their plane seats can be much more challenging.  United should know better.

United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz

We can learn a lot about how NOT to behave as a leader from the jumbled responses of United CEO Oscar Munoz.  Don't be surprised if he is replaced soon by their board of directors.

As a leader it can be difficult to understand what to do in a crisis.  Then wait, if you can.  Limit your response if you can't. 

Develop a habit of asking questions to make certain you have as many facts as possible before making a decision.  Reacting to a problem in which you only have one side of the story is foolish.  It only gets you and your business into more trouble.  Don't let the media, someone's emotional outburst, and/or your own feelings manipulate you into making a mistake.

Mr. Munoz fell prey to these common human failures.  I can only imagine how the crisis unfolded itself to him.  The pressure was probably intense and it was difficult to formulate a coherent response and steer his company through some rough seas.  

Maybe he saw it first on social media, but most likely he first heard about it from a text or call from one of his lieutenants.  Can you imagine being the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company and receiving an urgent message like this?

!!  We have a problem.  A flight was overbooked and United personnel had to ask police to pull a passenger off a plane.  It's all over social media.  It looks really bad.  We're gonna get crucified.  See for yourself

If you are a leader and a crisis erupts, then do not react.  Instead, consider a response process like this:

  • Stop
  • Ask questions
  • Confirm facts
  • Consider alternative responses
  • Delay a reasonable amount of time to formulate an empathetic decision and communication based on the facts
  • Consider how different recipients will respond to your explanation
  • Perhaps only respond to part of the situation, and promise a follow-up after more information is available

Mr. Munoz did not follow this system.  He reacted, again and again.  He ruined a perfectly good opportunity to stand up for his employees and make a clear change to United's policies.  Unfortunately, he is now cowering in the corner after a serious media pummeling of his company.

United employees, shareholders, and law enforcement needed a strong leader.  Mr. Munoz failed them.

It is a shame.  I would have preferred Mr. Munoz emphasize what his people and the law enforcement folks did right rather than abandon them.  I would have loved for him to fight for his people and the cops that supported them.  He should focus on solutions to avoid similar situations rather than trying to buy public favor by reimbursing everyone's ticket who was on that flight, and changing his response multiple times.

I wish he had stood firm, while at the same time confirming reasonable actions that were being taken to avoid similar situations.  His approach has encouraged and/or allowed the media to separate and manipulate his response into unattractive sound bites.

For instance, Mr. Munoz promised no United passenger will ever be forcibly removed from a plane again.  REALLY?  If you have a drunk who is trying to open a door of your plane, wouldn't you want him or her removed? 

If you have someone claiming to have a bomb, wouldn't you want them removed?

If you have someone who is so sick they are projectile vomiting while your plane is still on the runway, wouldn't you want them off your plane?

I am confident everyone can come up with at least one scenario where they want Mr. Munoz to get someone off their plane.  Unfortunately, he has painted his entire company into the proverbial corner of NOBODY gets kicked off.

It is interesting to note that I cannot find anywhere on www.United.com where the CEO could post a message like:  "Here is what happened.  Here is our apology.  Here is why this happened.  Here is what we are doing to avoid similar situations in the future."

The Police

Based on the information I have, the police did most everything right.  Don't get me wrong, police brutality is a real issue in many cases around the country and the world.  However, the airport police were only somewhat rough with Dr. Dao because he would not come with them willingly, or even stand to walk off with them.

I was raised to respect law enforcement.  They are on our side, at least if you are a law-abiding citizen or foreign guest of America.  When an officer pulls me over, I give the utmost respect including addressing the officer as "Sir."  Even if I feel the cop is wrong, I am still respectful.

Police are human beings just like you and me, and their job can be very difficult and dangerous.  When they are called on to perform a task, there are no guarantees the person they approach will respond peacefully.  Remember:  Police officers do get killed in the line of duty.

Does this exempt the police from treating people with respect?  Absolutely not.  However, it does mean they deserve our respect first and foremost.  If we refuse to obey their lawful instructions, they are authorized to use necessary force to make us comply.

In this case the law enforcement personnel performed their job respectfully with Dr. Dao, clearly and repeatedly communicated the consequences of him not obeying them, and followed through as promised. 

Could they have done a better job?  Maybe, but Dr. Dao's injuries were his fault for not complying with the law.  Have you ever had to remove a screaming passenger from a plane?  It would be difficult, even if it was a relatively small, uncompliant adult.  Although it is an uncomfortable situation to watch in the videos, Dr. Dao was in the wrong.

Dr. David Dao

Dr. Dao should have left the plane when United told him to give up his seat, just like the three others did.  Why should he be treated differently than anyone else?  He refused.  He was given more opportunities to reconsider when law enforcement people boarded the plane.  They asked Dr. Dao to leave, and then warned him they would drag him from the plane if necessary.  He still refused.

What was he thinking?

Apparently he was stuck in a focus of only his wants. "I want..." over and over again.  He gave no thought to the well-being of other passengers, the flight crew that needed to get to their destination, or the people who were planning to meet other passengers at their destination.

For Dr. Dao, it was:  "It's all about me."

When asked why he refused to leave the plane, Dr. Dao responded along the lines of, "I have to work tomorrow."  Well, guess what Dr. Dao?  Everybody has to work tomorrow!  The police are here.  Get off the plane.

Would you feel comfortable with Dr. Dao as your physician after watching those videos?  Not me.  What type of advice would a physician give me if they believe they are above the law and are unwilling to consider the facts?

I am sincerely sorry Dr. Dao was hurt and that he had to give up his seat.  Nevertheless, neither of these results justify him breaking the law.

WARNING:  It would be unfortunate if any court of law rewarded Dr. Dao in a lawsuit because that decision elevates narcissism over what is best for the common good of all the people.

The Passengers

The reaction of some of the other passengers is very disturbing.  Some might say their response of shock and dismay is typical of the zombie, me-first culture we live in today.  Did you watch the videos?  Dr. Dao screaming.  A woman practically wailing, "This is wrong!"  Multiple camera angles from cell phone videos.  

REALLY? Lots of people sitting and watching the whole thing.

Why does this concern me?  Well, if the situation bothered them so much, why didn't they give up their seat?

What would you do?  If I was there, I hope I would have volunteered to give up my seat.  None of them moved.  None of them volunteered.  Narcissism is not just embedded in the most vocal or violent of our population, it is often deeply ingrained in the judgmental folks who sit on the sidelines.

The entire scandal could have been prevented by one humble, empathetic person.

The Media

There has been a lot of hype and outrage from this incident.  I hope at least we can agree on one conclusion:  

People on social media and the mainstream media cannot and should not be taken at face value.

We live in an outrage culture that is often misled, unreasonable, and motivated by less obvious (hidden?) agendas.  Many people who are outspoken and the media in general are too often looking for the "next big story."  They rush to shove it in our faces with cries of outrage rather than doing their due diligence to gather and consider more of the information.

WHY? Because we pay attention to them, and sadly, too often they only provide information they want us to hear and leave out important facts.

I suggest you wait for more information to come to light before becoming convinced by a one-minute video taken by a mobile phone.  Ask why something is happening.  Ask why that person or media outlet is sharing the story.  Ask if they have a bias.  Keep asking and wait.  Give a story a few days to materialize before getting all worked up about it.

There is a proverb in a 2,000 year old bestselling book that says:  A fool shows his annoyance at once, but a wise man overlooks an insult.

I encourage us to be wise.

Was the BIG issue that a passenger had to be dragged off a plane?  No, not really.  The big issue is how many fools allow themselves to be manipulated by emotions in a brief cell phone video (that does not provide the whole story) rather than facts.

The bottom line

Dr. Dao was selfish and unwilling to obey law enforcement.  Whether the police are right or wrong, our responsibility as individuals is to obey the law, and the police.  Dr. Dao was wrong, he should have left the plane.

A lesser blame goes to United Airlines for making the mistake of boarding an oversold flight without first confirming volunteers.  It's a lot easier to stop a person from getting on a plane than to get them off.

Hopefully everyone learns from this situation and similar issues are avoided in the future.

What can we learn from this mess that can help us make better decisions during a crisis?  I suggest you use this incident, and the lessons learned, as a training exercise for your leadership team, if not your entire company.

Choose wisdom.  Choose to be a role model.  Choose behaviors that unite us for the good of the many, rather than divide us in the selfishness of the solitary.  

NOTE #1:  I am an A-List Southwest Airlines flyer, and a lowly Premier flyer on United.  My impression is the burly, bearded, friendly guy who manages my United gate at Roberts Field in Redmond, Oregon for my 5:30 a.m. departure would never make this mistake.  He asks for volunteers before an oversold flight.  I know because I've volunteered.

Also, get this:  This United representative - I can't remember his name - booked me on a competitor's flight and even walked down to the gate of that airline to make certain I got on the other flight.  He was exceptional in his approach to serving United flyers.  

One bad incident should not convince us other every other person of that company, group, or person of some heritage should be condemned. 

NOTE #2:  An airline pilot's wife posted a similar view to mine here.  At the time of my viewing her post there were 1,437 comments, mostly rude, full of expletives, emotional "who cares about the facts" condemnations.  Apparently the abusive, threatening comments were so bad that comments on that post are closed.  

It is disappointing that in our narcissistic society people have lost the discipline of civility in debate.  Too many people feel they have the right to bash others cruelly while requiring people with different views to leave them alone.  

I hope you practice kindness, empathy, respect, and the Golden Rule in your interactions with others...  even when they disagree with you, and yes, even on the internet.

You are mistaken if you disagree with me and believe you can shout down a different opinion than your own.  Peaceful protest and perspective always wins in the end.  Study Ghandi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and others.

I do not expect this newsletter / blog post to be popular, however I was raised to hold everyone to the same standards and stand up to bullies.