Not Everything Is About How Terrible America Is
No, you’re not mad at America.
Well, maybe you are, but not for the reasons you should be mad at United.
And you should be mad at United, but not for all the reasons a lot of people are mad at United.
Don’t be mad about overbooking or bumping.
Overbooking is something that we do for *everything*. It’s environmentally sound. It’s economically sound. We would do it if we were full-blown socialists, this shouldn’t have anything to do with capitalism. This article is weak on the paragraph about volunteers but it explains overbooking (and passenger bumping due to hard to predict technical reasons) very well. United isn’t even the worst carrier when it comes to bumping issues.
Designing any queuing system is hard, but the alternative is that we have an incredible amount of waste. You can’t plan your highway system based entirely upon one hour’s worth of peak traffic time. In the case of air travel, it’s already environmentally costly. Even with overbooking, most flights are well under 90% capacity. That’s a lot of empty seats.
Putting a ~160,000 kg object in the air for a few hours *without* it being as close to full as possible would be nearly criminal. In addition to all the extra pollution we’re now divvying up among a smaller number of passengers, the straight cost of the flight means everybody would be paying more for the tickets.
And guess what? In spite of this being a very hard problem, airlines are very, very good at handling it.
The industry had just over 40,000 involuntary bumps out of nearly 660 million passengers in 2016, according to the transportation department. The rate of 0.62 involuntary denied boardings per 10,000 passengers in 2016 beat the 2015 rate of 0.73 and the previous low, set in 2002, of 0.72.
So no, overbooking should not be illegal.
Don’t be mad at United for having to put their own crew on the plane, and bumping people to do it.
For the same reasons as overbooking. Airlines are crazy-complex, ongoing mathematics problems, and they’re incredibly susceptible to natural systems that are very unpredictable. A weather anomaly can cause planes to have to re-route, which causes fuel burn that can affect the entire system of air travel. 15 minutes of extra time at the wrong gate can have cascading effects through the whole system. Airlines have to be able to re-purpose crew and move them around to plug those gaps.
And if they don’t do it, other planes elsewhere are going to be delayed or cancelled, which will affect far more than four passengers.
Don’t be mad at United for their ticketing contract.
Most folks don’t read their ticket, and they don’t know what they actually purchased when they bought it. Airline tickets are crazy ugly legalese (on par with your average EULA). People don’t know that they’re signing up for a provisional access only, and that they have a cap (and a limited cap at that) for compensation if the airline doesn’t give them the service.
But this isn’t United’s fault… or at least it’s not *just* United’s fault… this is because we deregulated the industry. Deregulation means that there are fewer mandates, and thus lower costs, but that also means each airline has to compete with the other airlines on cost, at the expense of service that folks are willing to give up. And most folks don’t shop on service, when it comes to air travel, they shop on price.
That’s on us, collectively.
If we want our air carriers to have better ticketing contracts, we should/can have a mandated floor for compensation for folks who need to give up their flights. Indeed, we already do. Maybe it’s too small. Maybe we let airlines get away with not paying the minimum. Lots of possible questions here.
But if we just get rid of overbooking, the price of tickets *will* go up, across the board, and then a lot of folks will have limited travel opportunities (given that air travel is bonkers expensive from an externality standpoint, in environmental terms, this might not be a bad idea, but it also means more car traffic for long trips, which is worse…) There’s a lot of tangled strings, here, so pulling on one pulls on others.
DO be mad at the arrangement between the police and the airline.
Not necessarily the specific police officers who are doing their job. You don’t have a right to a plane ticket, and if you’re refusing to leave a plane when the airline asks you to, eventually someone is going to escort you off the plane, one way or the other. If you’re drunk or violent or threatening other passengers, that’s a case where I’m okay with the cops getting involved.
In the case of a passenger, randomly selected, who doesn’t want to give up their seat, that’s a contractual dispute between a planeload of folks and the company offering to fly them somewhere. If the airline has the default ability to call on the police force to handle their contractual dispute, that’s a serious imbalance of power.
*DO* be mad at United management for not having realistic policies in place prior to this event to prevent it from happening.
If you’re a stockholder, and if you have a 401(k), a 403(b), or a pension you’re probably at least a partial stockholder, then you get to be mind-explodingly angry at the management of United. Heads should roll.
There’s simply no excuse for a service industry not to have leadership sit down at some point and say, “Hey, so, it’s entirely reasonable for us to be efficient, here, but we can’t just rely on the legalese on our tickets to cover our butts when we have to tell people their flights are cancelled, delayed, or they lose their seat on a scheduled flight because we need to use a smaller plane. Our people on the ground need to know how to handle these situations, or we’re going to have a public relations nightmare. Let’s hammer out suitable exception scenarios and train our people. We may want to give somebody discretionary power to make on-the-spot decisions that might cost the airline a little bit of money but prevent bigger problems. We certainly don’t ever want a picture of a bloody passenger going around on social media!”
Look, this isn’t an unknown problem. Airlines have to take passengers off of their planes all the time. Flights are overbooked. Somebody gets too drunk. Somebody panics at the thought of going up in the air in a metal cylinder. There are a ton of reasons why airlines might need to take someone off a flight, and overbooking isn’t even close to being the most outrageous one on the scale.
And for the love of all that’s holy, when you have a PR nightmare, as the lead executive, don’t make public statements that amount to throwing a canister of gasoline on a fire.
But Munoz doubled down in a letter sent to United employees on Monday afternoon, describing the passenger as “disruptive and belligerent.” He also said that “employees followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this.”
If you have a decision tree that can result in what just happened, your risk management is atrociously horrible. That’s entirely on management… and in the case of management at United, there’s more than some evidence that their customer service attitude is a systemic problem.
And it should never be necessary.
You cannot tell me that on a flight full of passengers that you can’t find someone who will accept a reasonable offer of compensation such that the flight is not still economically sound and profitable for the airline. Airlines have an established pattern of offering less than the statutory-mandated minimum.
Unfortunately, this is a typical game all of the airlines play. They start offering compensation and travel that is less than what is required under the FAA rule hoping that people who haven’t been properly informed about their rights will take the cheap offer. When this doesn’t work they slowly raise the offers.
* * *
If United had taken a senior gate agent and brought him onto the airplane and said to the doctor, “here is our written policy about denied boarding. I know you are in a seat, but you are mistaken that we can’t remove you. But guess what? You will get refunded whatever you paid if we can get you to your destination within an hour, and if it takes longer… you could get up to 400 percent.”
He would likely have gotten up and gotten off the plane in a second.(
(edited to add) Wait, I might be wrong. Maybe everything IS about how terrible America is, but not in the way I was thinking when I wrote this… (/edited)