I’ve never personally had a bad travel experience with United Airlines. Until last month, I had nothing bad to say about the company. Now, though, I kind of do.
What happened with United Airlines last month, in case you don’t remember, is that a private security officer beat up a doctor and dragged him off a plane before takeoff, while it was sitting on the tarmac.
When you put it that way, it sounds abjectly evil, the sort of thing a caricature of an big, bad corporation would do. Naturally, though, there were extenuating circumstances.
The full story is that on April 9, United Airlines had overbooked a Sunday afternoon flight from Chicago to Louisville—it’s standard practice in the airline industry, so they don’t lose money on empty seats when people don’t show up to fly. Not enough people had cancelled, so there were too many people booked for the flight, which is still a common scenario. In that case, the airline’s next step is to offer incentives for people who agree to take a later flight.
If you have a little leeway in your travel plans, this is usually a pretty sweet deal.
On this flight, for some reason, they’d gotten all the passengers on board before starting to offer bids, which was unusual, but not outrageous. And for United Airlines, the bottom line was that they absolutely had to get four passengers off this flight, so they could fly four of their own personnel to Louisville to meet a deadline. So four passengers were selected by computer to be kicked off the flight, and one of them refused on the grounds that he was a doctor and had to get to Louisville to see patients.
The rest you can see if you look up videos of the incident, which show the doctor being dragged forcibly from the plane—his glasses knocked askew, his shirt pulled up, and blood leaking from his mouth.
Now, airlines have a large degree of autonomy in removing passengers, with good reason. In this case, though, the passenger wasn’t disturbing anyone or endangering anyone. He was just trying to get to Louisville.
For lots of people—rightfully, I think—their gut reaction was horror. But others came down on the side of United Airlines. “Of course it’s awful that he was beat up, and the airline used too much force, but it’s within their rights to remove him from the plane.”
Others are even more pro-corporation, blaming the passenger for his “stupid” behavior and defending the airline for doing what they had to do to keep their schedule.
That’s a line of reasoning that I object to very strongly. People who make that argument seem to think they’re arguing for common sense and economic pragmatism—the needs of United Airlines’ employees and shareholders outweigh the needs of one passenger.
On the surface that sounds reasonable, but only on the surface. Their argument actually says this: if you get in the way of corporate profits, prepare to be run over.
I’ve also heard the argument that, while United Airlines created a bad situation by overbooking the flight, they had no choice but to remove the doctor from the plane. That’s simply untrue. United Airlines stopped the bidding at either $800—according to other passengers—or $1,000, according to their own records. Had they really wanted to remove four passengers from the plane without incident, they could have kept bidding the price higher. It could have gotten expensive, but that’s the risk they’re assuming when they overbook their flights.
Recall that the entire incident came about because United Airlines needed to transport four of their own employees to Louisville. Had they really wanted to avoid resorting to violence, United could have put those employees on another flight, or even sent them by car or bus. Again, it would have been expensive, but it would have prevented someone from getting beaten up.
If United Airlines had those two options open to them, why would they elect to beat up a passenger and remove him from the flight?
The answer is the most messed up part of the whole affair: they did it because it saved them money. Probably not in the long run, of course—the total value of United Airlines stock dropped more than $700 million in the week following the incident—but it seemed like it was going to save them money at the time. Somebody, or perhaps multiple people, weighed the prospect of hurting a customer against the prospect of losing money, and decided that the latter was worse.
For what it’s worth, I do understand that United Airlines is not a single entity. I realize that the decisions leading up to last weekend’s incident were made by individual people looking out for their own jobs, and not by some Nastian caricature of a robber baron. I understand, too, that corporations aren’t the evil monoliths we sometimes make them out to be. Insofar as I have a horse in the race of economics, it’s usually capitalism.
But I also know I don’t want to live in a culture where it’s acceptable for corporations to use violence against customers to protect their own finances. If corporations are going to be people, it’s time for them to grow up and start acting like it.