Dr. David Dao and the Morally Callous Flight Attendants of United Airlines

THE TREATMENT OF DR. DAVID DAO BY THE STAFF OF UNITED AIRLINES was so horrific that it is utterly incomprehensible to me that any airline personnel could have engaged in such behavior. The usual strategy when a flight is overbooked is to seek a volunteer to leave the plane and the incentive in that regard is the amount of compensation that is offered, with the amount offered increasing in the face of complete resistance on the part of passengers. When I am at Hancock Airport in Syracuse (NY), a mere $100 is often more than enough of an incentive for me to get off the plane and fly out at another time—even a different day. By contrast, when I am flying out of Paris (France), a much higher offer is needed before I or anyone will consider getting off the plane.

Thus, the horrific treatment of Dr. David Dao is absolutely incomprehensible to me. The behavior of the agents in their treatment of Dao could not have been much worse if they had all been on crack or utterly drunk. And the point just made holds all the more so given that David Dao is 69 years old and was flying with his wife. There is a modicum of respect which surely any 69-year-old person is owed. To be sure, there are 69 year-old folks who have lots of latitude. Just so, a measure of graciousness and respect is owed to a person of that age. Or so it is in the absence of evidence that makes it clear that the 69-year old individual is rather lacking in terms of having self-respect and exhibiting basic moral decency.

There is not a shred of evidence that suggests that Dr. David Dao, who is 67-years of age, was lacking either in terms of having self-respect or exhibiting basic moral decency. Nothing whatsoever. And that reality makes the horrific way in which he was treated by the flight attendants even more reprehensible and incomprehensible. Quite honestly, I have wondered over and over again whether or not the flight attendants were inebriated—a point that holds all the more so given that Dao is clearly a senior citizen. A modicum of basic respect towards a senior citizen is so clearly appropriate that the horrific attitude on the part of the flight attendants is utterly incomprehensible. More precisely, the horrific treatment of David Dao by the flight attendants reveals a horrific level of moral callousness on their part.

My view is that the behavior of the flight attendants with regard to David Dao was is so callous and indefensible that the flight attendants deserve to be dismissed. For there are times when an immediate 2nd-chance is entirely out of the question. For example, if a male friend of mine raped a female, my friendship with that male would come to an immediate halt. Perhaps some years later, we could be friends again.

Of course, the flight attendants did not commit rape. Just so, their behavior nonetheless revealed such a horrific measure of moral callousness that in my mind they are no longer worthy of employment by United Airlines. At their very least, they deserve to be suspended without pay for at least 2 or 3 months. For they did not just make a mistake—which all of us do from time to time. Quite the contrary, the flight attendants exhibited a substantial measure of utterly callous and, therefore, inexcusable behavior.

© 2017 Laurence Thomas

About Laurence Thomas

Laurence Thomas is Professor in the Department of Political Science and the Department of Philosophy at Syracuse University. His most recent book is The Family and the Political Self and his most recent article in French is "Juifs et Noirs: Au-delà du Mal" in Trigano (ed.) Juifs et Noirs: du Mythe à la Réalité. Thomas has published numerous essays on the topic of friendship. The essay "The Character of Friendship" has appeared in volume on friendship, entitled Thinking About Friendship, edited by Damian Caluori and the essay "Friendship in the Shadow of Technology" has appeared in the anthology Moral and Moral Controversies edited by Steven Scalet and John Arthur. His most recent essay--entitled "Being Moral and Handling the Truth"--is about circumstances under which it is morally permissible to lie. Indeed, an example is given in Section IV of a lie being morally virtuous.
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4 Responses to Dr. David Dao and the Morally Callous Flight Attendants of United Airlines

  1. Sam Johnson says:

    Professor Thomas,

    What did the flight attendants do that was morally callous? They simply did their job, the computer algorithm picked 4 people randomly to have leave the plane, when Dr. Dao refused several times they called Chicago Police Department agents per protocol, who then brutally removed Dr.Dao. I see the blame falling on United themselves because they had the wherewithal to offer more money to passengers to volunteer to deboard the flight but only went up to $800, and to the agents who used more force than necessary, which resulted in 2 broken teeth, a bloody nose, and sever concussion for Dr. Dao.


  2. Greetings Sam–

    Initially flight attendants are required to ask for volunteers if a flight is overbooked. And the flight attendants did not do that. Furthermore, the flight attendants have to allow that a passenger’s circumstances may be such that she or he is not in the position to volunteer. If a passenger’s spouse or child was murdered and the passenger conveys that information to the flight attendants, then it is absolutely wrong for the flight attendants to expect the passenger to volunteer if the flight is overbooked. And it would be equally wrong for the flight attendants to force the passenger to get off the plane.

  3. Sam Johnson says:

    Professor Thomas,

    The flight attendants did ask for volunteers, and provided financial incentive as well, but no one wanted to deboard. And I understand some people may have excusing conditions, but the flight attendants did what they were suppose to. They followed protocol. None of the passengers gave up their seat for Dr. Dao because he had a stronger moral claim to it since he was seeing patients the next morning. Can you blame them? Delta Airline has gone up to $12,000 to get people to deboard, United Airlines was just being stingy and didn’t want to lose out on profit. And since in the contracts we agree to every time we fly allow flight attendants to remove us from the plane whenever they want and for whatever reason, they decided to use that power. They are a private company and their property rights give them the wherewithal to do that. I think they should not have done that, and they are to blame.


  4. Thank You. But at the point where no one is volunteering to get off, the airline company has to respond by making an ever more attractive offer so that someone will be motivated to get off the plane. It is in fact against airplane policy to choose who will get off the plane. And there can no doubt about it: If the offer had been high enough, someone would have volunteered to get off the plane. I fully understand that United needed someone to volunteer. But needless to say, whether a person is inclined to volunteer or not typically turns upon the benefit that the volunteering brings about. In coming back to the U.S.A. from Paris (France), I have given up my seat on several occasions precisely because doing so allowed me extra time in Paris without costing me anything. So in effect the monetary offer was rather irrelevant !!! And guess what, several of the flight attendants new just that; for we know one another in that they know that I fly between Paris and the U.S. around 6 times a year. Not surprisingly, I was the first person the flight attendants approached about the flight to the U.S. being overbook and the need for someone to give up her or his seat. As the saying goes: “They hit the nail on the head ! ! ! !

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