Department of Transportation: No Penalty for United Airlines After David Dao Assaulted, Dragged Off Plane

Dr. David Dao was dragged from a full United Airlines plane by O’Hare Airport Security officers, in a still from bystander cellphone video. (Photo credit: Twitter / @JayseDavid)

A passengers’ rights advocacy group, Flyers Rights, released documents yesterday showing that in May, the Department of Transportation  — which, incidentally, is currently headed by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao — quietly concluded an investigation into United Airlines for an incident that occurred earlier this year wherein passenger Dr. David Dao was assaulted by police and dragged from a full airplane.

The letter obtained by Flyers Rights following a Freedom of Information Act request showed that the Department of Transportation had concluded following their investigation that United Airlines would not face any sort of fines or other punishments following the incident, which was videotaped by another passenger and went viral on social media.

On April 9, 2017, United Express Flight 3411 was scheduled to take off from Chicago O’Hare and land in Louisville, Kentucky. The flight was full and all passengers were seated when United employees announced that they needed four passengers to voluntarily disembark from the airplane to make room for a flight crew that needed to make it to an otherwise unstaffed airplane. United offered vouchers of up to $800 as an incentive, but no passengers volunteered to be bumped. At that point, United used a computer to select four passengers for involuntary removal. It has been later revealed that this algorithm prioritizes non-frequent flyers and passengers who paid a lower fare for selection.

Dr. David Dao, a doctor from Elizabethtown, Kentucky, was among the four passengers selected for removal. Dao refused to give up his seat, saying that he needed to see patients at his medical practice the following morning. United contacted O’Hare Airport Security — who are not police officers but whose uniforms at the time stated that they were — to forcibly remove Dao from his seat. Those security officers were videotaped by fellow passengers physically assaulting Dao — leaving him dazed — and dragging him from the airplane. Dao was later taken to hospital where he was found to have suffered a concussion, loss of two front teeth, and a broken nose.

The Department of Transportation opened an investigation into the incident following widespread online outcry, including accusations that United had selected Dao because of his identity as an Asian American, which many (including myself) felt may have contributed to the violence committed against him by  law enforcement.

In a two-page letter, however, the Department of Transportation notified United vice president Steve Morrissey  that they found United had committed only two errors in their handling of the incident: that one passenger was not given adequate compensation for being bumped from the flight, and that Dao and his wife had not been given a handbook outlining their rights as passengers. Department of Transportation lawyers said that they understood that United had quicly corrected the first error when it was noticed. The Department also said that they were also satisfied by United’s explanation that Dao and his wife had left for the hospital before they could receive their handbook of rights. Of course, the letter overlooks the fact that the only reason Dao was rushed to the hospital was because of injuries sustained during an assault by security officers masquerading as police.

Importantly, the Department of Transportation writes in their letter that they “find that United did not subject any of the passengers on United Express Flight 3411 to unlawful discrimination. There was no evidence that United discriminated against any of the passengers who were involuntarily denied boarding on Flight 3411 based on their race, color, national origin, religion, sex, or ancestry.”

Never mind, of course, that just months before the incident involving Dao, a Black woman was similarly dragged from a Delta Airlines plane; and in June, a dying Black woman was also dragged half-naked down the aisle of the plane by first responders. Strange how this kind of treatment seems to be disproportionately reserved for non-white passengers?

“We conclude that enforcement action is not warranted in this matter,” writes Department of Transportation lawyer Blaine A. Workie in the letter to United.

The Department of Transportation did not appear to have considered whether United employees committed any wrongdoing when they called O’Hare Airport security officers to physically remove Dr. Dao. They also did not investigate the actions of those security officers, who used brutal and unnecessary force against Dao, a paying United Airlines customer who did not want to be removed from the airplane. The lack of any investigation into these aspects of the incident are baffling, as they lie at the heart of why this incident was horrifying and offensive to many; it also leaves us without any investigation into whether race factored into the violent treatment of Dao by law enforcement officers.

It seems no one at United will be held accountable for the decisions made that left Dr. David Dao bloodied and horribly injured. I guess there are no government regulations preventing airlines from calling law enforcement to physically assault non-violent passengers who refuse to comply with unfair or unreasonable boarding and overbooking policies. I guess we can chalk this up to just another indignity that we must endure if we hope to fly anywhere in America — particularly as people of colour.

Reacting to the story, Paul Hudson, president of Flyers Rights, said that the treatment of Dao was “egregious in every sense of the word.”

United Airlines apologized earlier this week for the incident involving Dr. Dao, and said that the airline had made changes in its overbooking policy, including increasing the monetary incentives to passengers as well as disallowing the removal of boarded passengers. United also said that it would no longer call law enforcement to forcibly remove passengers, but this remains only an internal United policy.

In April, Dao settled with United Airlines in an agreement that prevents him from speaking out against the airline or suing police for their violence.

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