United We Observe

Not wanting to go softly into that dark night and let Uber run away with the worst company of the year award, United decided to take things to the aisles and give people a live action horror show. Somehow, United decided later to bring him back on board (warning, this is a video of theman begging for death), and then removed him again, this time on a stretcher.    

There is just so much to unpack in this stunning display of unbridled force against a paying customer.

For their part, United has held strong that this entire unfortunate situation is really the paying customer’s fault. All their tickets include an agreement which state that the airline is free to bump you from a flight if they overbook it. As Wired points out, this process normally works out for greater profit as it allows the airline to sell more tickets than it actually has capacity to fill.

Sell too few seats, you lose money. Too many, you piss off passengers. And so airlines turn to fancy math. Their forecasting systems start with a series of complex inputs: historical data on no-show rates (how many people showed up for this flight last week? Last year?); how many of the tickets sold are refundable; and how many are coming off connected flights. Airlines even use individual data: If you have a habit of missing flights, they’ll sell more seats on your flight than they would otherwise.
A human analyst tweaks these models based on outside circumstances. Maybe there’s a music festival in town, full of flakey drunks who might miss their flights. Or a hurricane is rolling in and no one’s missing their flight out of town. Then airlines’ proprietary algorithms crunch the numbers and come up with that perfecto overbooking balance.

Here’s the thing, these algorithms are either really not good at what they do or their setup to create misery. In 2016 alone 505,000 passengers voluntarily got bumped and 46,000 passengers were involuntarily forced off their flight and didn’t receive the service they paid for, in advance.

This is a startling example of how bizarrely convoluted our society has become. United is stating that the customer was in the wrong because they had agreed to these conditions with the ticket. As for the horrifying methodology used to extricate the man from his seat, well that’s on the police.

From the Buzzfeed article

"The Department of Transportation (USDOT) remains committed to protecting the rights of consumers and is reviewing the involuntary denied boarding of passenger(s) from United Express flight 3411 to determine whether the airline complied with the oversales rule," a spokesperson said. "The Department is responsible for ensuring that airlines comply with the Department’s consumer protection regulations including its oversales rule. While it is legal for airlines to involuntary bump passengers from an oversold flight when there are not enough volunteers, it is the airline’s responsibility to determine its own fair boarding priorities.”

Imagine if an individual signed a contract to complete a service, and then failed to supply such a service. There would be no question that right there, it was a breach of contract. United is able to stack the deck because they and their competitors all force fliers to sign an agreement in which they can arbitrarily deny fulfilling their end of the contract.

This highlights the corner we’ve backed ourselves into as a nation with our stubborn insistence on having every industry be for profit. There is really only one advantage to overbooking flights, the chance to make more profit. In some small way you can argue that it’s nice for the people arriving at their destination at a more desirable time when the seat ends up getting opened up by a cancelation. Clearly, however, avoiding conflicts are not given a high priority if over half a million people are being asked to give up their seats a year. For that matter, having some flexibility with a few extra seats on crowded flights would probably be more useful than having people get turned away at the gate.

The dream of capitalism is that it maximizes the user experience as customers will be able to choose the best experience with their dollar, and in the end, the airlines will be rewarded for respecting their customers. The problem is that travel by air is expensive, and so its not economically viable for their to truly be competition in air travel. In so many situations, the customer is forced to choose which airlines they fly based on logistics such as routes and times available.

As time progresses and telecommunications improve, our world’s become smaller. It’s only natural in this day and age that people would be finding themselves in close partnerships, whether for business or pleasure, with people from thousands of miles away. The reality is that long distance travel between cities is going to be a fundamental part of the human experience for a large number of people. Air travel is clearly infrastructure, and it simply does not work to have infrastructure be handled in a for profit manner. 

So now we’re here, where United is allowed to sell more seats than they can accommodate and fail so badly at logistics they are forced to de-board people who have already been seated. When one customer practices some civil disobedience, they turn to law enforcement. Our law enforcement have a fairly embittered relationship with the populous, particularly with minorities, and so their solution is the embodiment of state violence. 

It’s easy to gloss over just how emotionally scarring this whole event must have been for all the passengers on this plane. Remember, all these people were offered to get off the flight, probably at some bonus, and refused. Now, as a completely unforeseeable result of their innocuous decisions, these paying customers are forced to watch a man who could easily have been them get assaulted by the police and generally treated like a hostage for probably around an hour. 

If all this is not shameful enough, let’s look at this a bit more from a bit more of an outsider’s perspective. The gentleman doctor victimized in this whole tragedy is an Asian man. The United States has a fairly sordid history with Asian Americans, with the internment camps and all. Imagine if a German airline in Germany was seen doing this to a Jewish passenger.