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Ralph Nader Explains Why United Airlines Has “Total Unbridled Discretion to Throw You Off a Plane”

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Amid fallout from the United Airlines passenger who was beaten and dragged from a flight by airport security guards, we speak with longtime consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who in the early 1970s helped force airlines to begin compensating passengers bumped from their flights.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. On Thursday, the lawyer for a United Airlines passenger who was beaten and dragged from a flight by airport security guards said his client lost two teeth, suffered a broken nose and concussion, and might need reconstructive surgery. Dr. David Dao sustained the injuries after United Airlines ordered him off the plane, leaving his paid seat on his Chicago-to-Louisville, Kentucky, flight last Sunday. The airline said they needed the seats for their own employees. United then called in Chicago Department of Aviation security officers to forcibly remove the 69-year-old physician, when he refused, and they dragged him down the aisle off the flight.

We turn now to Ralph Nader, longtime consumer advocate, many-time presidential candidate, who, back in the early ’70s, helped force airlines to begin compensating passengers bumped from their flights. I spoke to Ralph Nader last night and asked him to explain how he did this.

RALPH NADER: On a bright morning in April 1972, I went to National Airport in Washington to take an Allegheny Airlines flight to address a large downtown rally in Hartford, Connecticut, at noon. And I got there with a confirmed ticket. And they said, “The plane is full. You can’t get on the plane.” I said, “I have a confirmed ticket and a confirmed seat.” “I’m sorry, the plane is full.” Behind me was an assistant to Senator Ribicoff, whose name was John Koskinen, who’s now the IRS commissioner. And he was bumped, too.

So I found myself a wonderful public interest lawyer, Reuben Robertson. He took it all the way up to the Supreme Court. In a 9-0 decision, the court ruled that if you are bumped with a confirmed reservation, you have a case under the doctrine of fraudulent misrepresentation. And so we went down to the lower court and the Civil Aeronautics Board, and they required the airlines to put a notice on the ticket counter in all of our tickets saying, if we are bumped, we’re entitled to some form of compensation. What form was to be decided by the airlines. And they decided to auction off the seats. And it worked like a charm 99 percent of the time. And where it doesn’t work is where the airline gets chintzy and offers vouchers instead of cash.

And what United Airlines did in the flight from Chicago to Louisville, when they wanted to get four seats empty for four flight attendants deadheading it to Louisville to get on another plane, was offer vouchers that expire in one year. And they got three out of the four, and they picked a doctor, Dao, and called the security when he objected, and dragged him off the plane. And a billion people have seen that.

But why did they do that? Because they didn’t want to offer cash. And why didn’t the customer have a right to stay on? Because the contract of carriage, which is on the UAW website, is 67,000 words long and fine print, and it takes away the rights to be assured that when you have a confirmed reservation and you’re in the seat, you can stay in the seat—total unbridled discretion by the airline to throw you off the plane. So now the stage is set, because so many people are outraged, for getting the passenger bill of rights legislation through Congress, which has been mired for decades because of the airline lobby. So it all started with a lawsuit.

AMY GOODMAN: To see the whole interview with Ralph Nader, you can go to Ralph Nader is the founder of the American Museum of Tort Law, which is located in his hometown of Winsted, Connecticut. It’s been reported that all the passengers on the United flight have been offered a refund by United—if they sign on the dotted line that they will not sue the airlines. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

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