MANY airlines habitually overbook flights, working on the assumption that a few passengers will always cancel at the last minute. By selling more tickets than seats, they can ensure their flights are full even when there are no-shows.
Sometimes that calculation misfires and airlines have to bump passengers. There is a right and a wrong way to do this. The option United Airlines plumped for on April 9th would strike most as the wrong way.
According to the Courier-Journal, after passengers had boarded a service from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky, the airline discovered that it needed to fly some stand-by employees to Louisville for a flight the following day. When no passengers accepted an offer of $400 to be placed on a later flight, it upped the ante to $800 (plus a night in a hotel).
United Airlines forcibly removes a man from an overbooked flight
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That was enough to tempt two passengers to leave. At that point, rather than raising the price further, the crew randomly selected a pair of travellers, apparently using a computer. The unlucky flyers were told to collect their things and disembark. One man, who claimed to be a doctor with patients to attend to the next day, refused to go. The airline called for police back-up. Officers boarded the plane, and forcibly removed the man to the obvious distress of both him and the other flyers, two of whom recorded the incident (one video is embedded below, another here).
— Jayse D. Anspach (@JayseDavid) April 10, 2017
The videos make for ugly viewing. Some passengers report that the man was knocked unconscious during the incident, others that he had a bloodied face. Yet United seems unrepentant, apologising only for fact that it had overbooked the flight, not the use of force that ensued. In a statement it said:
Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities.
Most will see that as mealy-mouthed. So how should an airline do things when it needs to bump a passenger? In such circumstances there should be only one correct course of action: to pay fair compensation to any volunteers willing to rebook onto a later service. And what counts as fair? Let the market decide. If flyers are not tempted by a carrier’s first offer, keep raising it until someone bites. If that price is many times the cost of the original ticket, so be it. (This would have the happy side effect of forcing airlines to price their overbooking policy properly. It might even encourage a few to drop the process completely.)
United Airlines probably now wishes it had adopted that fair-minded model. The facts about Flight 3411 will continue to emerge but, not for the first time, a carrier will be left wondering whether its stinginess covered the cost of the bad publicity and ill-feeling its actions have generated.