Not Enough Seating? Time for a Beating!!


Overbooking airline seats and bumping travelers is legal but the practice backfired on a recent United flight. Is civility dead?



Theologian Martin Buber distinguished between “I-Thou” and “I-It” relationships. In an “I-Thou” relationship, the other person’s well-being is at least important to you as your own. In an “I-it” relationship, the other is viewed as a “thing” an object to be manipulated, exploited, or–worst case–exterminated.

About the author

Dr Greenberg publishes frequently on film, media, and popular culture. For many years, his cinema column appeared in Psychiatric Times. He has appeared frequently on national and international network and cable television programs including Good Morning America, Today, CBS Evening and Sunday news, PBS, CNN, Showtime and BBC-TV. Please address communications to Dr Greenberg at HRGSMES@AOL.COM


Harry Stack Sullivan wrote that “we are all more simply human than otherwise.” This comfortable maxim doesn’t apply when the “other’s humanity ceases to exist-or is deemed never to have existed at all. (Hitler called Jews and Gypsies untermenschen-subhuman things-and accordingly had them slaughtered.)

Overbooking airline seats and bumping travelers from a flight is legal. So is compelling a passenger to surrender a seat when an insufficient number accept compensation for leaving.

The practice backfired when Dr. David Dao refused to give up his seat on United Express Flight 3411 out of Chicago bound for Lexington on April 9. Dao maintained he needed to get home to take care of his patients. After attendants couldn’t persuade him to deplane, Chicago Airport Security was summoned. Several security cops then brutally removed Dao, who was dragged down the aisle and out the door, sustaining multiple injuries in the process. According to reports of horrified passengers, as well as the footage shot on the scene, Dr. Dao’s objections were quietly stated, nor did he ever evince violent behavior.

United had requisitioned the seats to fly airline personnel to another assignment. 

Multiple, articulating factors contributed to the perfect storm of Dr. Dao’s savage un-personalization. I lack information about the attempts made by United attendants to mediate the situation before it was deemed necessary to summon airport security. But there’s no doubt about the sadistic behavior of the airport police, three whom were later suspended. Videos show that the cops made only token efforts to negotiate a peaceful resolution, before springing into repellant action. It’s unclear if they had received the training in decompressing such problems that law enforcers across the nation now routinely receive.

On the hot seat

United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, initially asserted that the ejection was legitimate. United then quickly declared that the incident had occurred on a satellite company’s flight (Republic Airlines): the implication was that such a thing wouldn’t have taken place on a “genuine” United flight. But as the old saying goes-the fish stinks from the head: United’s leadership must bear ultimate responsibility for Dr. Dao’s inhuman mishandling.

To increase profit and reduce costs, United and three other carriers that now monopolize domestic flights have raised prices, introduced extra charges, cut onboard services, and subjected inflight personnel to ever greater workplace stress. In this context, something was bound to give, and it finally did. The airline proceeded to make fulsome apologies, issued refunds, and says it is reviewing its booking policies. I don’t deny that some of the breast beating and expressions of contrition are genuine. But corporations, increasingly facing similar crises caused by treating consumers like things, now pay dearly for experts to wash away the stink.

Those fulsome apologies and other damage control strategies are carefully planned and executed. They’ve worked over a-not-so long haul. VW and Toyota’s profits are rising again after scandals about, respectively, emission control tampering and spontaneous vehicle acceleration. It must be said that both companies have undertaken extensive measures to correct the issues. And the two automotive giants still must compete with many other automakers. They do not have the power and control over their customers possessed by the domestic airline monopolies.

United, too, will likely recover from its fully deserved financial battering precipitated by the Dao affair, through the standard-issue PR strategies. Expect apologies to metastasize, together with promises to make the bloodstained skies friendly as before, indeed even friendlier. Expect incentives like lower fares, fewer delays, extensive review of noisome overbooking and bumping policies, whatever. Yes, there may be real changes.

The customers United is striving to woo back have been given ever fewer choices about flying over the last few decades of consolidation, layoffs, and a variety of other unwholesome corporate shenanigans. I wonder if the boardroom bunch already knows this state of affairs exists; that they are hoping worn down customers will be eager to accept incentives; and that short memory spans will facilitate return to the lucrative pre-Dao status quo.

I myself haven’t flown United after being unceremoniously bumped from a flight a few years back, without prior notification, and vile alternative offers. (At least I came away without losing molars.) I’ve been inconvenienced when the honchos are up there trying to cut off your knees. But such protests, however small, are vital-now more than ever.

Many American companies still provide fine services and goods at reasonable cost; treat their employees and customers well, and exercise the highest ethical standards. It’s the “I-it” behavior of corporations like United I detest-sometimes glaring; sometimes hidden beneath phony reassurances of good will.

A final note on Dr. Dao’s Golgatha

Physically ravaged, humiliated before the world, the man has had to suffer yet another cruel public dehumanization. Details of Dr Dao’s past legal difficulties went viral as a result of coverage by the enormously popular TMZ show and websites like Viral Feels. These trashed out venues were clearly more interested in dishing delectable dirt about Dao’s alleged “dark side” than the monstrous cruelty perpetrated upon him. An inference could even be drawn that there was some connection between the two, by those who savor tabloid reports of alien abduction and the visage of Jesus materializing on blueberry muffins.


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