The cattle class will be cheering for Dr. David Dao when he sues United Airlines.
The millions of Americans who have been treated like herded livestock while traveling on commercial airlines make up the cattle class, and they will surely be pulling for a court to inflict maximum pain on United.
But no matter how substantial that financial punishment will be, it won’t be as painful as the injuries done to the physician when he was dragged off of a United plane in Chicago last week—a concussion, broken nose, lost teeth and sinus injuries said to require reconstructive surgery—for refusing to kowtow to an order to leave the plane to make room for airline employees.
Dr. Dao’s suit against United is inevitable, but he likely won’t be able to sue others responsible for the deplorable treatment of air travelers. That would include the federal government.
Airlines can get away with treating travelers like cattle because the Federal Trade Commission under the Obama and Bush administrations blessed the mergers of the country’s largest airlines. As a result, four companies now control well over two-thirds of U.S. air travel. Due to the dominance of airline hubs at some airports, many travelers have only one airline option. The lack of competition breeds contempt for customers.
The U.S. Transportation Department has failed air travelers as well with anemic regulation of airlines. Air travel should be viewed as an essential public service like electricity and water, and providers should be regulated at least somewhat in the way of utilities.
The outlook, unfortunately, is for less, rather than more, airline regulation. The Trump administration has shelved an Obama proposal to require airlines to more clearly inform the public about extra fees, such as for luggage and various upgrades from the lowest cattle-class status, and has promised to weaken or eliminate other airline rules.
Someone should also be sued over the storm-trooper mentality that has captured the minds of air travel law enforcement authorities. Exhibit A would be the Chicago airport police who thought it was perfectly all right to assault and bodily remove a 69-year-old airplane passenger at the request of a corporation that wanted his seat for an employee.
Some airline travelers don’t check their bags, but everyone of them checks their civil rights at the door when they enter an airport. Look askance at an airport cop or a TSA agent, and your trip, if not your freedom, is in jeopardy.
The traveler who made what was by all accounts an innocuous comment to Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke on an airplane in January can relate to that. He was met by a squad of deputies when he left the plane, and was detained, questioned and, he said, threatened. Had his remark been made at a restaurant or a mall instead of on a plane, not even a self-styled tough hombre like Clarke, a John Wayne legend in own mind, would have dared use the police-state tactic.
Outrage over the assault and battery of Dr. Dao, recorded by cell phone video and seen by hundreds of millions of viewers, has drawn attention of one of the most reprehensible affronts to air travelers—the practice of overbooking flights.
United had sold every seat on the flight from O’Hare to paying customers and then decided it wanted four of those seats for members of a United crew bound for Louisville. When no one responded to a call for volunteers to give up their seats, passengers were selected and told to leave the plane. Dao, who was traveling with wife (also a physician, as are four of his five children), refused, saying he had to get home to see patients.
Though it has become standard operating procedure, overbooking is a practice that serves only the interests of airline companies and smacks of fraud. Passengers, after all, reserve and pay for their seats, yet are routinely denied the use of those seats when it serves the airlines’ convenience.
Airlines should either use the technology needed to avoid overbooking or live with the possibility that there could be a few empty seats on flights due to cancellations.
United couldn’t even manage to apologize properly after the images of what its CEO called “reaccommodating” a passenger by having him dragged off a plane bloody and concussed went viral, so a significant increase in respect for passengers is probably too much to hope for.
But at least members of the cattle class will be able to enjoy the pummeling United is going to get from the “reaccommodated” passenger’s lawsuit.