Watching events unfold at United Airlines over the last few days have filled me with shock, awe, and horror. As a result of this public relations disaster, their motto “flying the friendly skies” has turned into “not enough seating, prepare for a beating.” America stands as a beacon of freedom from oppression. United Airlines was an iconic American company until last Sunday, with a responsibility to uphold the intent of the immortal words in the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
In my opinion, much of the backlash was initially a result of the lackluster attempt at an apology from the CEO of United Airlines, Oscar Munoz. Despite three attempts, he still appears rather oblivious to the real suffering of Dr. Dao. Physicians have been taught that the best thing to do in the face of a medical error is to be honest, forthcoming, and apologize; it must be genuine and from the heart -- acknowledge our blunder, take responsibility for our mistake, and convey our sincere regret. Executives at United Airlines would do well to heed these words.
According to scientific research, there are six ingredients which constitute a proper apology – 1. Expression of regret, 2. Explanation of what went wrong, 3. Acknowledgement of responsibility, 4. Declaration of repentance, 5. Offer of repair, and 6. Request for forgiveness. The request for forgiveness is missing from apologies offered by this corporation.
Describing the violence caught on video as “re-accommodating customers” was offensive. Engaging in “blaming the victim” by describing the man who was dragged, while screaming and bleeding, up the aisle and off the airplane as both “disruptive and belligerent” made matters worse. However, as United Airlines watched their market value plummet by $250 million, this story began to take on an even more shameful context.
Does the background of a fare-paying passenger matter when evaluating an infringement on his rights? No. His “troubled past” should be completely irrelevant as to how United Airlines handled the forcible removal of a ticketed passenger unwilling to give up his seat. United Airlines actions are reprehensible and unjustified. We must not allow ourselves to be distracted by the salacious details of Dr. Dao’s life story; unless we are ready to risk exposure of our own personal secrets should we refuse to give up our paid seat someday.
The victim in this story is the passenger and could have just as easily been any one of us. More troubling to me is the thought Dr. Dao might be suffering from PTSD, in my opinion, based on the video footage. The fear conveyed in his guttural scream coupled with his passive demeanor as he was dragged down the aisle of the airplane indicated Dr. Dao seemed familiar with the brutality of forced compliance. At no point on the video is Dao seen attacking the security officers. In fact, he was later observed standing in the aisle saying quietly, "I want to go home, I want to go home."
However, Dr. Dao’s hometown paper, the Courier-Journal, capitalized on the opportunity to break a story, noting he was convicted of a drug-related offense more than a decade ago. As if implying United Airlines was vindicated in their mistreatment of him; in effect, victimizing him twice. His medical license was suspended by the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure and reinstated in 2016. Public documents indeed confirmed Dr. Dao carries a diagnosis of PTSD stemming from his traumatic childhood and additional distress experienced while working as a physician after coming to America.
Dr. Dao initially agreed to disembark the overbooked flight, from news reports, and when he discovered the next flight was not until Monday afternoon, he expressed the need to return to work. He is recorded on video saying “I can’t be late, I’m a doctor. I’ve got to be there at 8am tomorrow.” His license is restricted with supervisory requirements. It is highly likely unexplained absences could harm his chances of a full return to an occupation he dearly loves.
Research has found (Blair, 2000), 85% of Asian refugees had experienced horrible traumas prior to immigrating to the United States, including starvation, torture, and losing family members to war. A report released by the Surgeon General’s Office in 2001, reveals the effect culture, race, and ethnicity can have on mental health. Suffering from a mental health disorder can be highly stigmatizing and reflect poorly on one’s “family honor,” making it difficult to accept. Historical events and circumstances many individuals of Asian descent have lived through can be extremely traumatic. One study found as many as 70% of Southeast Asian immigrants suffer from PTSD.
Dr. Dao graduated from the University of Medicine of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, in 1974, a tumultuous time in Vietnam before the fall of Saigon in 1975. He very likely has had experiences many of us born and raised in America cannot fathom. His lawyer confirmed as much this morning on a live news conference. This man is the father of 5 children, four of whom are physicians, and he is married to a pediatrician. He has clearly worked very hard and overcome numerous obstacles in his life. He has atoned for his own missteps while holding his head high and that deserves our respect. According to public record, he complied satisfactorily with The Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure recommendations for rehabilitation and requirements to have his license reinstated. Dr. Dao embodies a quintessential American story.
Let us return for a moment to United Flight 3411 last Sunday evening where this man was physically assaulted as he was forcibly removed from the airplane he had been initially allowed to board. Can you imagine his fear and anxiety as he was “selected” to be evicted? When three large men returned to force him from his seat, what was HIS subjective experience? Even, the passengers who stood up for Dr. Dao were emotionally disturbed witnessing this horrifying event.
How more emotionally provocative would it be if one already suffered from PTSD, anxiety, or depression? If the airline industry cannot make allowances for individuals in this country who are singled out unfairly on the basis of age, race, or even disability, then everyday Americans must stand up for those individuals being victimized who are unable to do so for themselves. This could have happened to any one of us.
Nelson Mandela once said, “To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.” A second hero in this story, in addition to Dr. Dao, is the woman who said, “No. This is wrong. Oh My God. Look at what you are doing to him.” Thank you for lending your support to someone being mistreated.
If we as a nation lose sight of our humanity, we will lose everything for which we stand. Corporations are not people. We should bring United Airlines to their knees until they truly comprehend the damage they have done, mentally, physically, and emotionally to this innocent 69 year old physician and man. United Airlines should do more than apologize profusely; they should ask forgiveness of Dr. Dao, his family, our nation, and the world.