Some regulation is needed

April 20, 2017   ·   0 Comments

IT SEEMS THAT, as often is the case, a single incident affecting only one person can produce welcome changes that potentially affect a whole class of people.

This time it was the horrendous incident on a United Airlines plane that was about to fly from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky, a distance of under 500 kilometres.

As all of our readers must know by now it was the forcible removal from the flight of Dr. David Dao, a 69-year-old practitioner who refused to leave his seat because he needed to see patients the next morning and he knew there was no other United Express flight to Louisville until the next afternoon. Taken kicking and screaming from the plane by three police officers called in by the airline, he was hospitalized for injuries that included facial lacerations, a broken nose and two lost teeth, and now plans to sue United.

How could such a thing possibly happen to any airline passenger who had paid for his or her ticket, boarded the flight and was not causing a disturbance? Because United had a policy that permitted an off-duty flight crew to bump passengers on a fully booked flight so they could make it to an upcoming flight from Louisville.

In this case, the four-member crew hadn’t shown up at the United gate at Chicago’s O’Hare airport until the plane had loaded, and attempts to get passengers to volunteer to get off the plane were only half-successful because United policy apparently didn’t include offering the passengers more than $1,000 for the inconvenience.

And Dr. Dao and his wife, who is apparently also a doctor, were selected for ejection under another aspect of the United policy misrepresented as a form of random selection. (That policy apparently included exemptions for frequent flyers as well as business class passengers, but not for anyone like Dr. Dao with business appointments or anyone needing to make a connecting flight.)

The incident came to light only because some passengers shot the horrific scene on their cell phones and posted the videos on social media. And after initially making no apology for the incident and praising the flight’s crew members for following company policy, United has tried to make amends by offering full refunds to the other passengers and announcing that to avoid any repetition, any crew members that needed to travel would have to show up at least an hour before the plane’s departure.

But as we see it, the Dao incident demonstrates the dangers inherent in the sort of deregulation of industries under way in the United States at the instigation of President Donald Trump.

Interestingly, Mr. Trump called the incident “horrible,” and told the Wall Street Journal there shouldn’t be a cap on the incentives airlines offer to persuade passengers to volunteer their seats on overbooked flights. . . . “They should have gone up higher. But to just randomly say, ‘You’re getting off the plane’, that was terrible.”

Since other airlines, such as Air Canada and WestJet, also routinely overbook flights, we think the incident demonstrates a need in Canada as well as the U.S. for what might be called an airline passenger’s bill of rights, which would target problems triggered by overbooking flights.

The law should, among other things, set limits on overbooking and ban the forced removal of any passenger from his or her seat, save for instances of drunkenness or other disruptive behaviour.

As Mr. Trump mentioned, even he would give up his seat if an airline’s offer were sufficiently generous.

One thing we haven’t seen mentioned is the fact that it’s just 297 miles from Chicago to Louisville, and the trip by car can be made in 4 1/2 hours. We wonder whether the new United policy might include requiring late-arriving flight crews to take a limo to such a relatively near airfield.

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