A United Airlines passenger who had paid for a valid ticket and was sitting in his assigned seat – locked and in the upright position, tray table stowed – was forcibly removed by thuggish “airport cops” because the airline needed four seats for some crew members. The story has reverberated around the globe and much opprobrium and vitriol has been justifiably spewed United’s way – including some harsh treatment for the CEO Oscar Munoz.
Among the more asinine things Munoz said in defending the removal was that poor United Airlines crew aboard the flight from Chicago to Louisville “were left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers to assist in removing the customer from the flight.” That’s right: United had no other choice but to manhandle the guy out from his seat, bang his head silly, and drag him down the aisle like a deer shot in the woods.
You can throw a dart in the internet and likely find a story that takes a shit on United’s and Munoz’s head (just click here ); this blog is about the completely stupid practice of purposefully overbooking flights. Although legal in this industry at least, it seems patently unfair – and bad business – to sell seats more than once and then play a game of chicken at the gate (or on board) with your customers when more than 100 percent of them show up for a service for which you already took their money.
The airlines execute this practice because they have observed that some customers don’t show up for the scheduled flight – and the financial wonks at the airlines cravenly see opportunity to make a few more bucks. You never see such behavior at a Broadway show, a baseball game, or at any number of venues where tickets are purchased in advance. If someone buys a ticket to sold-out “Hamilton” and on the way to the theater is involved in a car accident, that person’s seat remains empty when the curtain goes up. You don’t see flunkies milling about outside the Richard Rogers Theater trying to sell that patron’s seat again. The understanding outside the airline industry is that once a seat is sold, revenue is recognized, so there’s no justification for selling it again.
Nonetheless, the airline industry which for years struggled with huge losses came up with the idea of overbooking as a hedge against flying planes with empty seats. Using powerful computers and data mining software, the airlines calculate the likelihood that on any given flight, at any given time and day, some number of passengers will not arrive on time (or at all). I suspect this works out nicely for the airlines most of the time; they scratch out extra revenue from selling a handful of seats twice. And they get to screw the people who failed to show up by charging them an exorbitant fee to rebook them. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if United would bump the co-pilot if they could sell his seat to a higher bidder.
But from my experience it seems quite common that the airlines flub the bet and are forced to deal with the self-inflicted problem of winnowing out some legitimate ticket-holders. The obvious solution: bribery. Almost always the airlines can entice enough travelers who are not in immediate need of cramming their asses into seats the width of a booster chair to forego the flight with vouchers to be used on future air travel. It’s funny to watch the gate agent play this moronic auction game while passengers sit and stew. The agent starts out with a low-ball figure which everyone knows is not the best and final offer (known as a BAFO), but soon enough a number north of $500 is proffered and some people cave in and relinquish their seats.
But not always. When this happens, the airlines can (again, legally) pick out the passengers for involuntary expulsion. How they do this probably borders on illegal or unethical discrimination. People chosen for involuntary expulsion almost always leave without incident, harboring disgust and revulsion for the treatment meted out by the airline. (Remember: it’s the airlines who put themselves into this public-relations chokehold with their overbooking schemes.)
The weird twist in the latest United Airlines imbroglio is that the people chosen for involuntary expulsion were asked to vacate the jet to make room for four United crew members who had to deadhead to Louisville. That’s right – United kicked paying passengers off the flight so that they could fly employees in their place. One of those people, a doctor who argued that he needed to be in Louisville the next day to see patients, refused to deplane – and the ugly mess was caught on video which has been watched more than 100 million times. (Some pundits argued that United blew it because they didn’t offer him a bigger voucher, but that’s a red herring – as if bigger and better bribery is the always the answer.)
Consider the magnitude of CEO Munoz’s asshole-dom when he said United was “left with no choice but to call Chicago Aviation Security Officers.” Chicago to Louisville is less than a five hour drive, and it probably costs a few thousand to charter a flight, yet United decided it was better to embroil themselves in a public relations fiasco of legendary proportions than to make alternate plans to get the crew to Kentucky. Why would United repel their own customers by acting like fascists? If you have to ask that, you haven’t flown in the past decade. (Sidebar: when the four crew members finally took their ill-gotten seats, the derision from the other passengers was devastating.)
As I write this United stock (UAL) is down $2.50 a share which means that since the forced expulsion became widely known the company has shed $750 million in market cap. But hey, they had no choice.