As the Christian community around the world prepared for Holy Week celebrations, a most unholy incident took place on a runway of O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, one of the busiest hubs for air travel in the world. The dreadful incident involved the violent removal of Dr. David Dao, a 69-year old Asian physician, from a flight scheduled to land in Louisville, Kentucky. It so happened that the incident was recorded by more than one smartphone, and the garish video spread like wildfire across social networks. The images showed Dr. Dao being slammed against an armrest by airport security officers and dragged by his arms down the aisle like a rag doll. Passengers screamed to no avail; amazingly, Dr. Dao returned aboard, confused, limping, and with blood streaking out of his mouth.
In what may have been the most disastrous public relations gaffe in the history of commercial air travel, United Airlines CEO Oscar Muñoz posted a deplorable Twitter update mentioning how sorry he felt that his company had to forcefully re-accommodate passengers as if they were furniture pieces in an airport lounge. For unexplained reasons, the Chicago Police Department jumped in to say that the passenger had fallen and injured himself—never mind that police officers were not involved at all.
As the comments by CEO Muñoz were mocked across Twitter and on news broadcasts, flight crew members called Dr. Dao belligerent and disruptive. This description was immediately decried by witnesses aboard the airplane, who mentioned that they had only heard loud protests from the gentleman, who was upset at having been picked for removal from the flight. According to the airline, seats were needed to fly four flight crew members back to Louisville that night, and with no one volunteering to leave the flight, the airline itself selected the passengers to be taken off the flight. Dr. Dao apparently complained that he was being singled out for being Chinese; it is not clear whether the man’s ancestry ties him to China or Vietnam, but it is clear that both Chinese and Vietnamese people are incensed over the incident and are calling for a boycott of United, an airline that serves many Asian air routes.
The investigation thus far suggests that the thuggish airport security officers are to blame for their violent handling of the situation; nonetheless, the insensitive response by United CEO Muñoz and the flight crew have resonated around the world and have spooked shareholders. On Wall Street, United stock has plunged by nearly five percent, and this is before lawyers representing Dr. Dao filed emergency motions to preserve evidence in this case as they prepare for what is sure to be a spectacular lawsuit. While aviation analysts do not believe that the incident was racially motivated, United did not do itself any favors with the callous response by CEO Muñoz and the abhorrent behavior of the flight crew and O’Hare security. United has moved to refund the tickets of all passengers on that ill-fated flight, but analysts believe that such PR moves may be too little too late at this point.