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United’s Ethical Blunder

What Could United Have Done Differently?

Last week we all watched as a United Airlines customer, Dr. David Dao, was dragged off the plane by an airport security officer because he was one of four passengers “chosen” to be kicked off to allow crew members to work another flight or risk cancellation.

United claimed the four passengers were randomly selected.

United acted in its perceived self-interest without regard to how it affected the customer who wanted to stay on the plane. The company’s decision was short-sighted, as many unethical decisions are. Other passengers were horrified by the incident. The public’s reaction was disbelief. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, United’s stock dropped 1.1 percent and lost $255 million in stock market value. United decided to compensate all the other passengers equal to the cost of their tickets. The aggrieved passenger hired a personal injury attorney.

The United incident is instructive of a number of considerations in ethical decision making:

  • Sometimes otherwise good people and institutions do bad things without being aware that they are doing anything wrong.

  • Ethics is based on common sense reasoning about what is right and what is wrong.

  • Actions have consequences that should be considered before, not after, decisions are made.

Ethical decision making can provide the tools to think through possible consequences before controversial actions are taken, not afterwards when it is damage control. United failed to perceive the reaction of other passengers to the ugly scene of dragging a person off the plane. They did not foresee the loss of goodwill as a result of their actions. The company suffered from “motivational blindness:” That is, United did not notice the unethical actions of the airport security officer because it was against its interests to notice.

There are other disturbing events surrounding the incident. In the video, we can here one passenger say “Good work. Way to go.” It is hard to understand how anyone would react other than horrified by the event. I wonder what that passenger would have said if it was his wife or his child being dragged off the plane.

Another bothersome event was the Louisville-Courier-Journal running a story examining what it called Dr. Dao’s “troubled past." It’s true Dr. Dao was convicted of six felony counts of obtaining drugs by fraud and deceit and in 2005 was given five-years’ probation. He was also convicted of writing prescriptions and checks to patients in exchange for sex. He surrendered his license to practice medicine in Kentucky.

Dr. Dao’s checkered past makes him a person of questionable character, not a criminal who should be dragged out of a plane in a violent manner. Trying to rationalize his choice as one of four passengers that were removed from the plane to make way for a crew needing to make a connection by using past activities is no different than bringing up the fact that a woman had been sexually active in her past and use it to rebut the claim of rape. There are rape shield laws to prevent that from happening in a court of law.

The first reaction of United CEO, Oscar Munoz, was to apologize “for having to re-accommodate the customers,” but not for the overbooking that prompted the whole mess. Apologizing for having to “re-accommodate” passengers is like apologizing for re-positioning someone’s nose after a barroom fight.

There is no doubt that under its rules, and that of other airlines, United had a right to replace passengers on a plane when overbooking occurs, which is common to offset the perceived likelihood of no-shows. Federal rules dictate a carrier must first check whether anyone is willing to voluntarily give up their seat before then bumping flyers involuntarily if nobody comes forward. Passengers agree to this policy when they book a flight, but it is questionable whether the airlines fully disclose this information in an easy-to-understand manner.

The ethical lesson to be learned from the United fiasco is a company might have a right to do something – legally – but that does not mean it is the right thing to do. Ethics is all about how we treat others. Dr. Dao was treated in a despicable manner.

What could United have done differently? It should have continued to raise the payment for the fourth passenger to voluntarily de-board. So, what if it cost $2,000. That is a lot better than facing a multi-million-dollar lawsuit.

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