Communication Currents

United Airlines plane at an airport gate

The United Airlines Incident and Organizational Communication

April 27, 2017
Crisis Communication, Current Commentary, Organizational Communication

By John C. Lammers, Ph.D.

The April viral video of 69-year-old Kentucky physician David Dao being pulled from a United Airlines flight shocked many people in its obvious brutality. The doctor had reserved, paid for, and taken his seat for a flight from Chicago to Louisville when he was randomly chosen to surrender his place so that a United flight crew could fly to Louisville to staff an outbound flight from that city.  Efforts to identify volunteers, even with offered compensation, had failed, so the airline exercised its right to evict several passengers. Dr. Dao refused to surrender his seat, and airport security officers physically pulled him from the flight, reportedly breaking his nose and several of his teeth and giving him a concussion.  Only a very narrow and rigid reading of the contracts involving passenger and airline rights and responsibilities could render the airline’s and the officers’ conduct justified.  Yet, that is exactly what governed the conduct of the officers and the employees of the United-contracted flight: contracts, not norms of civility, common respect for human dignity or decency, the social status of a person, or belief in non-violent resolution of disputes.

Norms of civility might have suggested alternative strategies, such as respecting the fact that Dr. Dao had purchased a seat. As many a retail employee has been reminded, “the customer is always right.”  Common respect for human dignity or decency might have led to other solutions as well, rather than placing hands on the passenger (the employees could have rented a car or taken another flight).  The fact that the passenger was a medical doctor who asserted that he had patients to see, that he was a member of an esteemed profession, made not one whit of difference.  That he had been a refugee from a war-torn land who had escaped brutality to come to the United States also fell by the wayside as he was dragged from the flight. Nor did the employees or the security officers seem particularly well-versed in strategies of verbal persuasion or negotiation. Instead, they seemed quite willing to resort to the use of force.

The initial response of United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz asserted that the crew members of the plane “were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight.”  Indeed, United’s Contract of Carriage document (United Airlines, 2017) stipulates that it may refuse transport to “Passengers who fail to comply with or interfere with the duties of the members of the flight crew, federal regulations, or security directives,” and that under circumstances of oversold flights, “if there are not enough volunteers, other Passengers may be denied boarding involuntarily.”  Dr. Dao’s attorney will certainly be citing the shortcomings in United’s defense of the physician’s removal as an inevitable damages claim is filed and pursued. However, it was the employees’ and security officers’ belief in the legitimacy of the contract that empowered them to remove Dr. Dao from the plane.

Mr. Munoz’s claim that his employees “were left with no choice” eerily echoes the all-too-readily followed instructions Stanley Milgram’s experimenters gave to subjects in his famous studies of obedience to authority: merely, “the experiment requires you to continue” (Milgram, 1963).  Widely criticized for deceptive experimental practices, Milgram nevertheless demonstrated how easy it was to induce subjects to administer what they believed were harmful, even fatal electric shocks to people who were simply learning a word list.  Seen in this view, Dr. Dao is no less a victim, but so also are the employees and security officers so readily persuaded that they were left with no choice.  Indeed, all of those of us watching and re-watching the video are disturbed, and we remain in disbelief that this actually happened.

Yet, in the wake of the United Airlines incident, many other scenes of poorly treated customers have found their way to social media.  Tens of thousands of customers are involuntarily bumped from flights each year (Rollert, 2017).  Also, the airline industry in general has rising problems with on-time performance, involuntarily denied boardings, mishandled baggage, and customer complaints.  One way this is manifesting across industries is economic class stratification. Luxury hotels, restaurants, schools, and medical care are available for the wealthy, while amenities are cut for those of more modest means. It is very unlikely that Dr. Dao would have been removed from the flight had he been sitting in the first-class cabin. Following the written but un-read rules, United and the security officers it relied upon to enforce those rules sustained the inequality that is built into the products and services United sells.

Those un-read rules factor into many of the services we depend on today.  The medical plans and insurance policies we rely on for health care are extremely specific contracts that tie physicians, hospitals, patients, and payers into behavior that mandates some activities and rules out others, as outlined by Lammers, Barbour, and Duggan (2003).  Whether the patient will receive care for particular conditions (such as infertility), or be reimbursed for particular procedures (such as colonoscopies), or be charged facility fees over and above the direct costs of services are all decisions that are built into health plan contracts.  Whether a patient can continue to see her physician has more to do with the contract the physician operates under than any government regulation.

To consider one more common example, most of us are familiar with the hurried scroll to the bottom of a screen to click the “ACCEPT” button on End User License Agreements (EULAs) of software and internet sites.  These wordy documents, however, stipulate the relationship between companies and customers.  They may specify that dispute resolution is always handled by arbitration, or that the company is faultless under circumstances that disadvantage the customer, or that the customer’s identity is the property of the vendor.  Indeed, the role of text in organizational communication has attained new scrutiny through the work of Francois Cooren (2004).

This new world of contracts may supplant what we in organizational communication have more commonly studied: interpersonal interaction or audience analysis. Much might be learned by dissecting the impersonal interactions among Dr. Dao, the crew of the United Flight, and the security officials, as Cassing and Waldron have suggested (2003).  Other scholars may offer useful analyses of how United should handle its reputational crisis, perhaps following the model set forth by Ulmer, Sellnow, and Seeger (2013).  Ah, but those contracts—those are new and important organizational communication, and they are coming to govern greater swathes of our lives.  Contracts clearly bind our conversations, text, and behavior, calling for the kind of discourse analysis set forth by Phillips, Lawrence, and Hardy (2004).  The question we might usefully ask is, “are we left with any choice?”


  • Kassing, J. W., & Waldron, V. R. (2014). Incivility, destructive workplace behavior, and bullying. In L.L. Putnam and D.K. Mumby (Eds.). The Sage handbook of organizational communication (643-664).Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Cooren, F. (2004). Textual agency: How texts do things in organizational settings. Organization, 11, 373-393.
  • Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. 67 (4): 371–8. DOI: 10.1037/h0040525.
  • Phillips, N. Lawrence, T. B., & Hardy, C. (2004). Discourse and institutions. Academy of Management Review, 29, 635–652.
  • Rollert, J. P. (2017). United isn’t alone in treating its passengers like garbage. Fortune.
  • United Airlines. (2017). Contract of Carriage Document.
  • Ulmer, R. R., Sellnow, T. L., & Seeger, M.W. (2013).  Effective crisis communication: Moving from crisis to opportunity.  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

About the author (s)

John C. Lammers

University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

John C. Lammers is Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, where he directs the Health Communication Online Masters of Science Program and studies institutional influences on communication among professions and organizations.

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