S.F. Could Clip Airlines’ Wings

In the wake of that viral video of a passenger being dragged off an airplane, a San Francisco supervisor looks to make sure a similar incident can't happen here.

“Not today, United!” says Supervisor Jeff Sheehy (Photo by Jessica Christian)

The world got a little lesson last week on how major airlines create seats on their planes when a flight is overbooked. As we saw from the viral video of 69-year-old Dr. David Dao being beaten up, bloodied, and dragged off a United Airlines flight in Chicago, the airlines are more likely to have the police haul your ass off the plane than they are to offer you a voucher for giving up your seat.

Now, a San Francisco supervisor wants to make sure what happened that day at O’Hare Airport cannot happen at San Francisco International Airport. District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy, who represents the Castro and Noe Valley, has proposed legislation that would ban San Francisco police from removing passengers from commercial flights.

“Chicago law enforcement was taking part in the enforcement of a private contract,” Sheehy tells SF Weekly. “The enforcement of this private contract is not something that San Francisco public safety officers should be involved in.”

The way SFO security is currently structured, the San Francisco Police Department could indeed be called in to perform the same passenger-dragging duties if an airline overbooks its flight. (While SFO is technically located in an unincorporated part of San Mateo County near Millbrae, SFPD are the designated primary law enforcement agency at SFO.)

It’s not just the fear of another embarrassing viral video that has Sheehy drafting legislation to make airlines do this dirty work themselves. It’s the fear of enormous, costly lawsuits, which are exactly what the city of Chicago and its police department are looking at now.

“The three Chicago law enforcement officers have been suspended,” Sheehy points out. “Chicago could be part of the lawsuit that’s taking place. So there’s a lot of exposure for both individuals and for the city.”

Sheehy’s proposal is not even fully written yet. He’s simply asked the City Attorney to draft legislation that the Board of Supervisors would vote upon, which they haven’t done yet. But that process is moving along.

“We hope to have something perhaps as soon as next Tuesday,” he says, referring to the supervisors’ April 25 meeting.

By the time it clears every hurdle and becomes law, the reactionary uproar over this viral video will likely be long forgotten. But that doesn’t mean the system won’t still be broken. After all, United still reported stronger-than-expected quarterly earnings this week. They can likely afford to offer passengers on overbooked planes the standard free replacement ticket, first-class upgrade, or nice hotel room in exchange for giving up their seat. Either way, San Francisco may choose to eliminate the option of using police as the airlines’ personal goon squad when the carrier overbooks.

“When the airline decided that they wanted to change the terms of the deal, they didn’t rely on market tools, which would be offering a level of reimbursement to persuade some patron to give up their seat,” Sheehy says. “They relied on law enforcement to forcibly remove a passenger.

“Who else gets to do that?” Sheehy asks.

View Comments