United Airlines and our culture of perpetual outrage

By Brad Polumbo

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(Tomás Del Coro/ Flickr)

United Airlines has been a staple of the American airways for decades, and served over 143 million passengers in 2016. But recently, the treatment of one of those passengers, Dr. David Dao, ignited a firestorm that has led to a roughly $250 million crash in the company’s valuation and a public relations nightmare. Dao, a 69-year-old man from Kentucky, boarded a United Airlines flight to Louisville. Unfortunately, as happens across the country each day, the flight was overbooked — in other words, United had sold more tickets than it had seats available.

Needing to make space for several essential crewmembers, United had to bump several passengers. It started out by offering passengers $800 to give up their seats. After this was unsuccessful, United employees proceeded by the book: They selected four passengers at random who would need to be bumped from the flight, given accommodation and put on the next available flight — a perfectly legal practice.

Three of these passengers complied without issue, as is usually the case when flights are overbooked, which is why you haven’t seen their names in the paper. But Dao refused to leave the plane and was eventually forcibly removed by airport police. A video of the violent removal that left his face bloodied surfaced on the internet, and a few hours later international outrage commenced. The media constructed a narrative of a cruel company unfairly targeting an innocent man, and the public went mad. This controversy has culminated in a potential Chinese boycott of United and widespread internet outrage. Keyboard warriors everywhere have denounced United’s actions, and lamented them as another example of the injustices they fight against.

But we have to ask, do the facts really justify this level of outrage? After all, United approached this overbooked flight in the same way that airlines across the country do every day. Dao was given many chances to leave the flight peacefully, and blatantly refused to do so. In airports post-9/11, this type of behavior is not tolerated as there is a greater emphasis on the expectation to comply with the instructions of airline personnel for safety reasons. After Dao dug his feet in, all United did was call the airport police. Anything that occurred after that point was out of its control, and was the responsibility of the police department. Still, the injuries to Dao that have garnered so much outrage were probably not done intentionally, and were likely only sustained after he was accidentally dropped while being removed. No evidence in the video, or anything that has otherwise surfaced, has shown that anyone intentionally tried to harm Dao.

Despite the media’s best efforts to create a narrative, Dao was not an innocent doctor assaulted for trying to get to his patients. Christina Mora, a reporter for a CBS affiliate out of Louisville, tweeted that his office remained open through Monday morning, and that the staff there would not even confirm that he had patients scheduled for Monday. Dao belligerently defied airport security, and was met with an unintended consequence. And now, Dao will also be a man with a potentially quite lucrative lawsuit in the works.

This is just one example, but in many cases today our outrage is rooted in rhetoric, not fact. Many see a 30-second video from “NowThis!” or the latest post from Occupy Democrats, and are practically ready to storm the streets. It has become cool to be outraged. When ranting on social media about some perceived injustice can bring you ample “likes” and attention, all of a sudden the facts aren’t so important. We’ve become a culture where people tweet first, and think second. A reactionary culture where responding quickly has taken precedent over making sure we understand what we are responding to.

But in the politically treacherous waters we are now operating in during the era of Donald Trump, it is more important now than ever that our outrage be not only measured but reserved for instances where the facts truly warrant it. There may very well be alarm bells that need ringing, but if we sound them every day, no one will come running when disaster really strikes.

Bradley Polumbo is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]