Airlines are required to handle cosmetics more carefully than they are people

Photos from a video taken by a United Airlines passenger showing passenger David Dao being dragged off a United plane.
Photos from a video taken by a United Airlines passenger showing passenger David Dao being dragged off a United plane. AP

United Airlines was fined $35,000 by the federal government for improperly kicking people off flights. Bath and Body Works took a $750,000 hit for improperly packaging cosmetics for shipment on cargo planes.

What kind of a system is this?

It’s one in which the U.S. Department of Transportation focuses more on safety than it does consumer protection. The result? A record period of safety for the industry, but also one of low customer satisfaction.

Aviation watchdogs say the federal government’s small civil penalties for messing with consumers do little to discourage the kind of treatment of passengers the world witnessed Sunday, when United ejected four passengers from a Chicago-to-Louisville flight after they’d already boarded so that flight crew members could get to their next worksite.

The widespread public outrage over the incident could push Congress into changing the law.

“There will be new regulations,” said Mary Schiavo, a former DOT inspector general in the Clinton administration. “It’s a mugging in the air.”

United Airlines was fined $35,000 last year for failing to produce a printed explanation of why passengers were denied boarding at airports across the country.

Delta Air Lines faced a record fine of $375,000 in 2009 for failing to seek volunteers before it denied boarding to passengers on overbooked flights. It also failed to notify passengers of the flight vouchers or cash payments they were due.

By contrast, the Federal Aviation Administration fined Bath and Body Works $750,000 in 1997 for improperly shipping cologne, considered a hazardous material under federal law, on cargo planes. The FAA is a safety agency and does not handle consumer protection issues.

The courts might offer the quickest remedy.

On Thursday, a lawyer for David Dao, a 69-year-old Kentucky doctor who was forcibly removed from the aircraft by Chicago Department of Aviation Police, said his client had suffered a concussion, a broken nose and two lost teeth.

Dao’s lawyer, Thomas Demetrio, said at a Chicago news conference his client’s experience, viewed worldwide on cellphone video from other passengers, was “more horrifying and harrowing” than when Dao had fled Vietnam in 1975.

“This makes the airline no different than a thug who bops you on the head in the street,” Schiavo said.

While airlines usually can claim they can be sued only in federal court because only federal rules apply, Schiavo said that since Dao had been seated on the plane, he could charge United with assault.

“The airline has no federal regulation cover,” she said.

On Thursday, United apologized again for its treatment of Dao and said the company and its chief executive, Oscar Munoz, had called Dao.

The airline also said it would no longer ask law enforcement officers to remove passengers from flights and would begin a review of how it handles crew movement and how it offers passengers compensation for oversold flights.

Congress is on recess until April 24, but some have already proposed legislation to end the practice of bumping passengers from oversold flights and to make sure passengers are offered adequate compensation before they board.

“If an airline chooses to oversell a flight, or has to accommodate their crew on a fully booked flight, it is their responsibility to keep raising their offer until a customer chooses to give up their seat,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Illinois Democrat, said in a statement.

It could be a tough sell. United Continental Holdings, United’s parent company, spent $3.4 million lobbying Congress last year, according to government watchdogs. The airline industry’s principal advocacy group, Airlines for America, spent another $6.4 million.

Vaughn Jennings, a spokesman for the industry group, said airlines had always supported passenger rights, but cautioned against taking unnecessary regulatory actions, “which could negatively impact the 2.2 million customers who take to the skies every day.”

Sunday’s United incident could be a game-changer.

Following a series of weather-related flight delays that left passengers stranded on airport tarmacs for several hours, the Department of Transportation changed the rule in 2010 to require airlines to let passengers disembark after three hours.

In 2015, the department fined Southwest Airlines $1.6 million for violating the rule, the largest civil penalty it’s imposed under the requirement.

The department’s Aviation Enforcement Office began reviewing the United incident on Tuesday.

There’s no limit to how much the department could fine United, Schiavo said. She suggested $2 million.

“I’d propose a pretty hefty fine to stop this nonsense,” she said.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis