CHICAGO >> United Airlines and the city of Chicago may find themselves the target of lawsuits by the man who was dragged off a United plane in Chicago last week after refusing to give up his seat.
One of Dr. David Dao’s lawyers, Thomas Demetrio, said as much Thursday during a news conference in which he suggested that Dao could be “a poster child” for the mistreatment of passengers by the airline industry.
“It took something like this to get a conversation going,” attorney Demetrio said.
Dao was forcibly removed from a fully-booked United Express flight out of O’Hare International Airport on Sunday to make room for crew members.
Demetrio said the 69-year-old Kentucky physician and father of five lost two teeth and suffered a concussion and broken nose during the incident. He also indicated that Dao will be suing the airline and the city of Chicago, which employs the airport police who dragged Dao down the aisle, his face bloody.
Demetrio said the video showed an extraordinary instance of something that happens too routinely: Airlines overbooking flights then bumping paying customers.
It also exposed a corporate culture in which airlines — and United in particular — have long “bullied” passengers, he said. The situation could have been avoided if the airline, which offered $800 travel vouchers and a hotel stay for passengers to rebook on another flight, had simply upped their offer, Demetrio said.
“I hope he becomes a poster child for all of us,” he said. “Someone’s got to.”
Dao, who didn’t attend the news conference, was released from a local hospital late Wednesday and will need reconstructive surgery, Demetrio said. He said his client was in a “secure location” because he has been hounded by media, but that he would speak at a future date.
One of Dao’s children, Crystal Pepper, said the family was “horrified, shocked and sickened” by what happened.
Early on, United CEO Oscar Munoz added to what was already a public relations nightmare for the company when he apologized for the incident but accused Dao of being belligerent. Later, Munoz offered a more emphatic mea culpa, saying: “No one should ever be mistreated this way.”
He promised to review the airline’s policies to make sure something like that never happens again, and said United will no longer use police to remove bumped passengers. The airline also said all passengers on the flight would get a refund.
In a statement issued immediately after Thursday’s news conference, United insisted that Munoz and the airline called Dao numerous times to apologize. Munoz himself said on Wednesday that he had left a message for Dao.
But Demetrio said neither Dao nor his family had heard from United.
The union for the airline’s pilots issued a statement Thursday seeking to distance them from the incident, pointing out that it happened on a United Express carrier that is “separately owned and operated by Republic Airline” and that United pilots weren’t flying the jet. It also said United pilots are “infuriated” by what happened and blamed the incident on the “grossly inappropriate” actions of the security officers.
The three officers who removed Dao have been suspended from their jobs at the Chicago Aviation Department.
Pepper said her father and mother had been traveling from California to Louisville, Kentucky, and had caught a connecting flight at O’Hare.
United had selected Dao and three other passengers at random for removal from the plane after unsuccessfully offering the vouchers and a hotel stay to customers willing to give up their seats. The three other passengers left the plane, but Dao would not.
The attorney was unable to say precisely how Dao was injured. Dao doesn’t remember exactly what occurred because of the concussion he suffered, Demetrio said.
For Dao, who came to the U.S. after fleeing Vietnam by boat in 1975 when Saigon fell, being dragged off the plane “was more horrifying and harrowing than what he experienced in leaving Vietnam,” Demetrio said. After what happened, Dao “has no interest in ever seeing an airplane” and will probably be driven to Kentucky, he said.
At a City Council committee hearing Thursday, aldermen ripped officials from United and the aviation department about the episode.
“There are no excuses,” Alderman Michael Zalewski said.
John Slater, a United vice president, said bumping passengers to accommodate airline employees happens infrequently, and that federal guidelines requiring rest for crew members made it necessary to get the employees on the Sunday flight to Louisville.
Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans told the committee that the officers had the authority to board the flight but that what happened on the plane is being investigated.
The department’s roughly 300 officers guard the city’s two main airports but are not part of the regular Chicago police force, receive less training and cannot carry guns inside the terminals.