Widgets Magazine


United Airlines: Corporatocracy in rawest form

By now, I think most people have now seen the viral video of an Asian-American doctor who was bloodied and forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight by police officers, all because the flight was overbooked.

This incident should immediately sound two alarm bells for anyone who is concerned about justice and, frankly, sanity.

First, there is something inconceivably grotesque about the way airlines handle overbooked flights, namely: Why in God’s name is the airline simply permitted to de-board paying passengers?

There’s an official answer to that: Some passengers simply don’t show up to their flights, so airlines compensate for that by selling more tickets than they have, which statistically should result in full flights. But, it also often results in them selling more seats than they have, which is really just a nicer way of saying what these incidents actually are – fraud on the part of the airline because it effectively sells products that it already sold to another customer.

Airlines will argue that the practice is part of their business model, but if that is the case, then airlines need a much better business model. It seems conceptually wrong to sell the same product to two different people. And if forcing airlines to take some kind of responsibility for their ticketing means they cannot reap the profits from the empty seats of passengers who do not show up, that’s capitalism. Airlines don’t simply get to rig the laws to create unfair rules that allow them to make money where no opportunity should exist. But, alas, they do. In fact, if you get bumped from a flight and arrive more than four hours late, you are only entitled to up to $1,350 in compensation – a small amount considering how much plane tickets cost and how much delays can jeopardize people’s plans.

Of course, there is a better, fairer way to simply kick people off flights involuntarily: offering compensation to volunteers and increasing the compensation until there are enough takers. I saw this once when I tried to fly on an overbooked American Airlines (not a fan, but credit where credit is due) flight from Philly to Ithaca, New York. The “bidding” for volunteers started at $1,000 for someone to wait for the next flight in six hours. Then it went to $1,500, and then $2,000. It wasn’t until $2,500 was offered that somebody reluctantly changed their plans. And you could say that paying $2,500 to a passenger who probably only spent $200 on their ticket is bad business, but then so is overbooking a flight. Business decisions carry both a benefit and a risk. United seems very content to capitalize on the benefit while twisting the laws so that their customers have to absorb the risks.

Even more disturbing is the role that police officers played in this scenario. Did it seem to anyone watching the video – or on the plane, for that matter – that the officers were serving the public when they bloodied and dragged out a paying passenger like a dead animal? No, they seemed like agents of United Airlines doing their bidding. The passenger was “belligerent” – according to the United CEO, at least – and so he must be removed from the plane; not only that, he will be removed by public agents, paid for not by United but by your tax dollars.

This incident is, of course, reprehensible in and of itself. But perhaps more devastatingly, the incident represents corporatocracy at its worst. Rules are set up – sometimes against logic itself – and enforced by agents of the state, so that these large corporations are able to pocket profits, while any losses they incur are dumped on the heads of average people, like this brutalized passenger.

Contact Terence Zhao at zhaoy ‘at’ stanford.edu.