United’s problem is everyones problem


Now the crisis over David Dao and his removal from a United Express flight by violent force, has died down (yet rumbles rightly onward and will do well into next month), I’d like you to think for a minute what this means for us all, every one of us who travel, or want to travel by air.

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Dignity: the state or quality of being worthy of honour or respect.

There is a word that rarely sees much use these days. Dignity. We are human, we exist, we have rights even when our governments and corporations try to take them from us. We are people, warm, thinking, human beings. And we all deserve to be treated with dignity.

Forget for a moment that David Dao is Vietnamese and any racial profiling that may have happened, but frankly that’s the last thing that was involved if it ever was, no matter how it might look.

It was bad enough in appearances, that United’s CEO had to go to the Chinese Consulate in Chicago to explain, and apologise in person, because it’s impact in China was vastly more than even in the Western media. The fact he was Vietnamese and escaped in the last days of the war didn’t matter. China was as appalled if not more so than we were.

United used a selection process to pick him out. He wasn’t a member of United’s loyalty programme, he wasn’t on their mailing ist, he was in economy, he paid the least for his ticket. He wasn’t a group, or family, he was single, and alone. He was, in essence the cheapest option for them to pick on. He had become a low-cost commodity. A statistically acceptable risk and cost. He was the lowest of the low from a value point of view, if he was pissed off about being thrown off, so what? He wasn’t really any value to the airline. A statistic to be marginalised and ignored. Worthless. So evidently worthless that he wasn’t even entitled to the very basic level of dignity a prisoner of war is due. His social status, his medical qualification, his life, his reason for flying, all utterly meaningless to the airline.

It doesn’t matter what airline did this, because in the algorithm driven ‘big data’ analysis, you are simply assigned a value. The class you travel,  your marketing potential, your mileage balance, the profit you might bring to the airline now and in the future, that’s what you are, a score.

That isn’t going to change, but what David Dao has done for us all, is highlight how far the loss of dignity has gone, and United, along with many other media conscious airlines, will be re-educating their staff, and changing their policies to handle things differently.  They will do it better, they will do it more quietly, they will do it in a more thoughtful way. But they will still do what they want when it suits them. Dr Dao may have actually pulled things back from the slippery slope for many people. Consideration might favour the passenger more than it did, but don’t think for a minute the airlines won’t be trying to find a way of redressing the balance.

We are all entitled to dignity, but we must also be dignified in the face of corporate over reach, and deal with it quietly, efficiently, politely, but always with dignity. We must know our rights and we must be expert, because only by beating them at their own game can we ensure we aren’t the next David Dao.


©Jon Champs 2017