Flight overbooks the barbaric norm

Editorial | 12 Apr 2017

If it's a nightmare to have your flight cancelled, just imagine what it must have been like for someone wrestled and dragged down the aisle off a plane because it was overbooked.

That was the ordeal a 69-year-old Asian-American doctor had to endure, after being seated on board a United Airlines aircraft - at a window seat, no less - at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, for a domestic flight to Kentucky.

Not only was David Dao bumped, he also wound up with a bloodied face for his troubles.

Aviation laws are unambiguous. The captain can always order a passenger to leave a plane if it is considered fit to do so. The UA captain was exercising this power.

But the incident called into question a common industry malpractice - selling more tickets than there are seats. The industry's assumption is simple: there are always no-shows at the airport gate.

However, trouble arises when everyone shows up, and this isn't uncommon during the peak travel seasons.

When this happens, it means someone will have to be bumped. In the UA incident on Sunday, four passengers had to go, and they were reportedly selected randomly by computer, according to criteria including ticket fare, frequency of travel, connecting flights, and the time they showed up at the counter.

Usually, any disputes can be resolved peacefully at the gate prior to boarding.

It's almost unheard of that passengers - not only one, but four in total on the UA flight - were asked to leave after receiving clearance to board. US media later reported the unlucky passengers were removed in order to reallocate their paid seats to several UA employees.

Was there some urgent business underway? There was no official explanation. Even so, couldn't UA book its employees on another airline?

The incident reflected poorly on the UA management headed by chief executive Oscar Munoz.

After the incident captured by other passengers on their mobile phones went viral on the internet, he shamelessly blamed the displaced passenger for being "disruptive and belligerent."

Did Munoz ever ask if his airline had handled the case properly in the first place?

One, why didn't his staff solve the overbooking matter at the gate before allowing the passengers to board the plane?

Two, why didn't his company adopt a simpler rule so that those showing up late were the first one to be bumped? Wouldn't this be fairer?

More fundamentally, should the controversial industry practice of overbooking be reviewed? There's little doubt that the industry can put forward dozens of reasons to support the overbooking policy.

However, from a consumer's point of view, it's unethical for a service provider to knowingly sell tickets to more customers than they can entertain.

Maybe Munoz can advise his board: if the airline is desperate for revenue, a new itemized charge known as the "No Bump Fee" should be created, so that passengers will at least have peace of mind even if their flight is overbooked.

Funny? No, it's pathetic.

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