Millions of Americans watched in horror Monday as 69-year-old Dr. David Dao was forcibly removed from a seat on United Airlines Flight 3411 from O’Hare to Louisville for which he had paid in advance. He was knocked unconscious, suffered a bloody nose, and was dragged out of the aircraft. When the video went viral on social media, much of the professional press seemed to be employed by United Airlines. There were explanations for why flights must be overbooked, assertions that passengers can be removed for any reason, and arguments that, since four United crewmembers had to get to Louisville to operate a flight, removing four passengers from the flight was in the interest of the greater good. There were discussions of the regulations, defense of United’s property rights, and a general plea for passengers to follow the rules. This was certainly an improvement on United’s official attempts at damage control.
All of this was so compelling, it had only one tiny flaw: the central claim that supported the entire line of argument was, well, not actually true. The plane was not oversold, and even had it been, they would have had the right to deny boarding, but not to forcibly remove a passenger not in violation of the contract of carriage. The need to move crew from a delayed flight was, in fact, due to United’s mistake, and they didn’t have the right to forcibly eject passengers as a consequence.
The media’s response to this event and the long delay that will ensue until Dr. Dao is compensated speak to the culture of impunity for corporate wrongdoing in contemporary America. United has professional attorneys, managers, and PR flacks who can work full time to protect the interests of their company while ordinary citizens have jobs and responsibilities that will not permit them to secure their interests. Government has largely abdicated the job of tipping the balance toward consumers and workers. The result has been a steady drain of power, wealth, and influence toward the wealthy that is working to corrode our social cohesion. Whatever ideological objectives conservatives and neoliberals hope to serve will be undermined by a fragmented and mutually suspicious social order.