Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Standardized Abuse

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, April 11, 2017 --  

The airline industry has become rife with anti-consumer policies.

It's been a bad week for air travel in America. First came a day-long storm that shut down Atlanta's airport for hours and caused a complete meltdown of Delta Airlines' network, resulting in thousands of cancelled flights impacting hundreds of thousands of passengers over several days.1 Before Delta had even recovered, United Airlines on Sunday violently removed a passenger from a boarded airplane in order to give his seat to an employee.2

A concurrence of events like these prompts reflection on the America's air travel system which has become rife with abusive practices that have become standardized across the industry. United's resort to violence to remove a "bumped" passenger from an airplane was captured on cell phone cameras, enabling the incident to spark international outrage. But while images of burly security guards bloodying a middle-aged man as they physically drag him off of an airplane are emotionally gripping, they don't focus on the true outrage -- airlines regularly deny paid ticket holders seats on planes, even if it rarely ends in violence.

Airlines are quick to defend the practice of overbooking and bumping passengers as standard industry practice -- as if standardizing abuse makes it OK. They use Orwellian doublespeak terms like "reaccomodate" and "denied boarding" when what they really mean is they will force you to take a less desirable flight than you paid for and they will physically eject you from your seat even after you have buckled up. Their right to do this is buried in the fine print, of course, the thousands of words of legalese that you have no choice to agree to and affirm you fully understand in order to buy a plane ticket on any airline.

The terms of these agreements are limited by federal law in the United States, and enforced by the Federal Aviation Administration. When it comes to compensating passengers denied travel due to overbooking, they set dollar amounts based on the length of the delay, ranging from two to four times the fare paid by the passenger -- up to a maximum of $1350.3 Passengers on the United flight where the violent removal of David Dao took place reported that the airline first offered $400 then $800 for volunteers to give up their seats, but nobody thought that was enough. Many outraged viewers wanted to know why United wasn't willing to offer more. The most likely answer is that they had run the numbers, and they knew they would not be legally required to pay any more. They could save money by dragging a man off the plane against his will.

And why were the bumped passengers chosen anyway? United isn't talking. Dao was recorded saying he was picked because he was Asian. Federal rules allow the airline to do almost anything it wants here, short of racial targeting. To save the most money, the airline would choose whichever passengers had paid the least for their tickets, as they would only have to legally compensate them for two to four times that fare depending on the delay. The most likely reason Dao was chosen is because he got a good deal on his ticket, and United knew they could drag him off the plane and have no legal obligation to pay him more than their highest $800 offer.

There is a simple solution: change the law. The caps on compensation should be much, much higher. This would generally force airlines to offer passengers enough money for them to agree to give up their seats. If this proved expensive, then airlines could simply choose not to sell more seats than they actually have on the plane. Admittedly, this may cut down their revenue a bit, and they might try to pass off the difference to passengers. But given the small difference this would likely make in the cost of a plane ticket, it seems an easy choice to make.

United's CEO issued a belated apology earlier today4, saying nobody should be treated like their beaten and abused passenger. What he didn't say is anything about changing United's abusive policies. United will presumably continue overbooking flights. They will continue refusing to let paid passengers fly to their destinations when they find other people willing to pay more. And they will continue to be willing to drag you off the plane, with violence if necessary, to make sure that the most onerous terms in the thousands of word legalese contract of carriage is held up to the greatest advantage of the corporation and to the greatest detriment of the passenger.

To be fair to United, they probably will do something different next time. They have learned that the power of cell phone cameras to document their abuse and create a public relations disaster. You can bet next time they bump a seated passenger, they will first make all passengers leave the plane before denying the right of the bumped passengers to come back on. This will allow them to continue the status quo while avoiding the bad PR caused by their pesky customers witnessing the abuse.


1. Arkansas Online, Delta's Storm Reaction Draws Criticism, April 11, 2017

2. National Public Radio, Passenger Forcibly Removed From United Flight, Prompting Outcry, April 10, 2017

3. Cornell University Legal Information Institute, CFR 250.5 - Amount of Denied Boarding Compensation for Passengers Denied Boarding Involuntarily, as posted April 11, 2017

4. Chicago Tribune, United Faces More Questions as Dragged Passenger Hires High-Powered Attorney, April 11, 2017