Thomas Demetrio is a Chicago lawyer who looks like he just stepped out of one of Irvin S. Cobb’s folksy “Old Judge Priest” stories for the Saturday Evening Post. You could also say he resembles real-life attorney Joseph Welch, who during the Army-McCarthy hearings, famously asked Sen. Joseph McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”
Demetrio effectively asked the same of corporate America the other day as he addressed questions about how he planned to represent Dr. David Dao over treatment from United Airlines for what even that major carrier’s CEO concedes was unacceptable — the thug-like removal of the 69-year-old MD from a UAL plane. The challenge to the airline’s behavior is just beginning. Dao’s attorney has said a suit would not be filed until all “due diligence” is finished.
In case you have forgone any association with the new world of technology or the old one of print and television and missed the much-publicized incident, Dao was summarily hauled from the seat he had paid for because the flight was overbooked and United needed his seat for a crew member. The doctor said he would not give up his seat to Louisville because he needed to see patients the next day.
Whether a trial ever takes place is another matter. United has moved to placate other passengers on the plane who witnessed the affair and were outraged. And evidence showing Dao was injured and will need facial surgery and other medical treatment has been mounting, meaning a very large settlement could come before a drawn-out court fight.
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While the law gives United certain advantages in thinning overbooked flights, the court of public opinion is clearly on Dao’s side, and damage to the airline’s reputation could be significant.
What’s more, Demetrio and his client seem in a mood to make this a broader issue. Demetrio made that clear in a measured, eloquent statement to the press that simply cited the need for corporate America to treat those who are its clients with dignity.
Those who fly regularly know exactly what he is saying. Passengers face accelerated prices and less service and terminals that not only bustle but trample. Planes are overcrowded and made far more uncomfortable by crammed overheads and seats too close together as the carriers seek higher and higher profits.
All this leads to an atmosphere of tension and intimidation between passengers and airline employees who tolerate no disagreement and often magnify the gravity of the situation. The passenger is seldom right under any condition. The constant fear of some terrorist event has worsened the entire experience.
I recently witnessed an incident involving a passenger who had just received an order from his company to change his flight for an urgent meeting elsewhere. He waited in line and explained calmly and politely to the gate agent that he needed, if possible, to retrieve his bags that had been checked on the first flight. He was told by the agent he did not have the time to deal with his problem. The passenger asked again for the agent’s help and was rebuffed. Finally, the frustrated passenger raised his voice and demanded to see a supervisor. At that point, the agent summoned security, and the man was led away pleading.
Perhaps nothing could have been done about the man’s baggage, but the situation was exacerbated by the agent’s bad judgment and rudeness.
Who knows how far Dao will decide to take this case.
One can only believe the episode has already shaken the airline industry to its core and will bring a realization of how far we have slipped since the days when the customer truly mattered. Let’s hope it won’t soon be forgotten.
Cobb was an early 20th century reporter, author and philosopher who applied his common-sense Kentucky upbringing to readers of the New York World newspaper. Welch’s admonishment to McCarthy is about all anyone still remembers about the Army-McCarthy hearings.
It’s a message our corporations need to hear loud and clear.
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: email@example.com.