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United Airlines, Public Enemy Number One


1. What was the most interesting thing that happened this week?

The last few days were certainly rather eventful. Domestically, the long-running City Harvest Church saga is still running. The Attorney-General's Chambers on Monday said it would take the case to the Court of Appeal, aiming to restore the six church leaders' original convictions which were significantly slashed by the High Court just a week ago.

Externally, the US military dropped America's most powerful non-nuclear bomb on ISIS targets in Afghanistan on Thursday, only days after it launched a missile strike on Syria.

In my view, however, the biggest story of the week must be United Airlines which is being condemned widely for forcibly bumping off a passenger on Sunday from a supposedly over-booked flight to accommodate its crew members catching a connection.

The photos and videos of a bloodied 69-year-old David Dao being hauled off the plane in humiliating fashion have gone viral around the world. United Airlines has become Public Enemy Number One.

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2. Why is this a big deal?

As the rest of the passengers on board Flight 3411 watched in horror when Dr Dao, a Vietnamese-American physician from Kentucky, was dragged out, they - and many around the world too - must have wondered if something like this might happen to them next time.

Let's face it. Unless you're in Business or First Class, flying is hardly the most pleasant experience for most people. With many airlines raising fares and slapping on additional fees, the least a passenger can expect is to be treated well, especially when one is stuck in a crammed seat in Economy.

What riled people most was United CEO Oscar Munoz's initial statement, which was widely criticised for being flippant and downplaying the incident. He blamed Dr Dao for being belligerent and disruptive when being told to leave, although videos of the incident showed he was anything but.

3. Did you see it coming?

Passengers are sometimes asked to vacate the plane because of the common practice of overselling inventory to ensure flights are as full as possible. But it's quite rare that a legitimate, ticketed customer already seated and ready for take-off is forced to de-plane.

United Airlines initially offered US$400 in travel vouchers, a night's stay in a hotel and a seat on another flight to the volunteer who would give up his or her seat. This was increased to US$800 when no one stepped forward.

When still no one volunteered, why didn't the airline go higher with the offer which in the US can rise to US$1,350 per affected passenger? With 70 people on board Flight 3411, someone could have eventually taken up a higher offer.

4. Should anyone be concerned?

If anyone should be quaking in his boots, it's United's Mr Munoz. He's already defied incessant calls to resign, insisting he will stick around to make things right.

He's since apologised for what's happened, but that admission of wrongdoing is likely to result in a multi-million dollar lawsuit coming its way pretty soon.

Even US President Donald Trump has weighed in on the fiasco. He described the incident as "horrible", and he was also of the view that United should have made a better offer to the passengers in the first place.

5. What happens now?

What we know is that United will refund the ticket prices for all customers who were on board that infamous flight. Mr Munoz has also promised to review the airline's policies, and guaranteed that United will no longer use police officers to remove bumped passengers. On Thursday, lawyers for Dr Dao confirmed that he will be suing United and the city of Chicago, which hires the security officers that pulled him off the plane. The attorneys said Dr Dao, who's been discharged from hospital but will need reconstructive surgery, will speak on the incident at a later date. It will be interesting to hear his side of the story.


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