Human rights

United in profit: Overbooking and violent removal all part of the service

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Forcibly removed United Airlines passenger (screen shot via

United Airlines violently dragged a passenger off an overbooked flight in full view of shocked passengers, but it's all in the fine print, writes John Passant.

YOU PROBABLY SAW the video — a passenger brutally removed for refusing to move from his United Airlines seat. 

The airline overbooked the seats on the flight. This is standard procedure for many airlines.

It means they can run close to full operating limits and makes each flight more profitable. What are a few upset customers anyway?

The man said he was a doctor who needed to see his patients the next morning. Not only that but he re-entered the aeroplane ten minutes later, even more bloodied, before being dragged off again.

The passenger has since been identified as Dr David Dao.

How can an airline do this? Well, contrary to what most of you might think, when you purchase an airline ticket, you are not guaranteed a seat. United’s conditions of carriage, for example, say (as do those of most airlines):  

‘Seat assignments, regardless of class of service, are not guaranteed and are subject to change without notice.’

Just to make it clear, another condition says:

‘All of UA’s flights are subject to overbooking which could result in UA’s inability to provide previously confirmed reserved space for a given flight or for the class of service reserved.’

If an airline is overbooked, they normally deny you access to the plane based on certain criteria such as fare type, the number of times you have flown with them and so on. If they haven’t done that but, in fact, have allowed you on the overbooked plane, the conditions of carriage give them the right to remove you for any reason.

They ask for volunteers first. In this case, they did not get any. So after upping the inducements and still not getting any takers, they decided to offload the doctor and his wife. Dr Dao was heard saying he had been singled out because he was Chinese — not that that would have any role in determining who the airline picked, eh?

You’ve seen the video.

This is how the free market works. United Airlines deliberately overbooks because they put profit before people. They are not running an airline to treat you well — you are merely a cog in their profit gouging machine.

Dragging the doctor off wasn’t some breach of their procedures. It was the logic of profit.

QANTAS is a little more circumspect; in its conditions of carriage, for example, it says:

Overbooked Flights — Denied Boarding Compensation.

Airline flights may be overbooked. This means there is a slight chance that there may be more reservations than available seats on your flight. In these circumstances, where practicable, we will offer an incentive for volunteers not to travel on their booked flight. Volunteers will not be entitled to any further payment, refund or compensation. If there are not enough volunteers, we may need to deny boarding to one or more Passengers involuntarily.

If you are denied boarding due to an overbooking of our flight for which you have a valid Ticket and a confirmed reservation, and you have met our Check-In Deadline and complied with all applicable requirements for travel as set out in these Conditions of Carriage, we will offer you a seat on the next available flight on our services. If this is not acceptable to you, we will provide compensation and any care required by any law which may apply or in accordance with our policy if there is no applicable law. This will depend on the jurisdiction in which the denied boarding occurs.

QANTAS appear to be a nicer kind of overbooker. Certainly, they are driven by the same profit imperative as United Airlines.

In the U.S., there are a large number of voluntary and some involuntary denials of boarding.

According to The New York Times:

‘In 2016 United involuntarily denied boarding to 3,765 of its more than 86 million passengers on oversold flights … An additional 62,895 people voluntarily gave up their seats.’

So there you have it — the brutality of the market exposed for all to see.

United’s response shows an enterprise aiming to cover its arse rather than admitting that it puts profit first and passengers last. The CEO apologised for having to "re-accommodate" the customers. By "re-accommodate", he means dragging the passenger from his seat, limp, bloodied and all.

United CEO Oscar Munoz said in a statement:

'This is an upsetting event to all of us here at United. I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers. Our team is moving with a sense of urgency to work with the authorities and conduct our own detailed review of what happened.'

United will suffer a consumer backlash. So they will try to do what they regard as the "right thing" by the doctor. He may well sue for millions, knowing that even if United have no contractual case to answer, they will want to sweep this festering pile of bad publicity out of sight as quickly as possible.

United may well respond with super cheap flights to entice passengers back and, for a period, my guess is they will suspend overbooking.

Then in a few months’ time, it will be back to business as usual for them and all the other airlines. Profit and competition will drive them soon enough to overbook again. Maybe we should be skyping those meetings for environmental and airline boycott reasons.

Read more by John Passant on his website En Passant or follow him on Twitter @JohnPassant.

Signed copies of John Passant’s first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016) are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

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