I may have missed a few things but here is a possible back story for the United Airlines scenario:
- A person who is a doctor books one of the cheapest tickets possible, not realizing that doing so means he opens himself up to the risk of being among those who are most likely to be involuntarily bumped from a flight.
- He has appointments to see people the next morning at his office. He will still have office expenses and he will lose considerable revenue if he doesn't make it to the office first thing in the morning.
- He is shocked, stunned, and irate when told he has to leave the plane.
- He plays the "God card". I have met far too many physicians who have said (or behaved as if they believed), "I am a doctor. I save lives. I am the next best thing to God that you will ever meet. I deserve special treatment."
- He doesn't get the special treatment and decides to cause a PR headache for the airline as a result.
In defence of the customer:
- I had no idea that airlines could bump people involuntarily. I knew they could overbook and then ask for volunteers to be bumped, but I had no idea they could bump people. I don't read the fine print. I have volunteered to be bumped in the past when I wasn't in any big rush. There have been other times when I really wanted to be on time, didn't want to be bumped, and wouldn't have volunteered to be bumped for any amount of reasonable compensation.
- It puzzles me that United Airlines didn't know this situation well enough in advance that they could have asked for volunteers or done the involuntary bumping in the departure lounge BEFORE the plane was boarded.
- The customer seems to have been treated roughly by the security personnel. [in their defence, it looked as if the customer actively resisted. It is difficult to be kind and gentle with someone engaged in active resistance. Contrast the customer's behaviour with that of those who engaged in non-violent passive sit-ins during the Civil Rights sit-ins of the 1960s.]
In my law and economics courses, I always taught the students to ask two questions:
- What is the risk?
- Who is the least-cost bearer of the risk?
In this case, what is the risk? The unlikely event that someone will be involuntarily bumped? Or that four flight crew members will be needed (unexpectedly??) in Louisville first thing the next morning? If the latter, it looks as if the airlines are asking people to sacrifice something to cover up poor planning on the part of the airlines, which doesn't look good. Or at best the airline is asking customers to buy insurance against possible poor planning by the airline. And then enforcing the insurance contract.
Who is the least-cost bearer of the risk? The airlines essentially sell insurance against being involuntarily bumped; they do this via their ticket pricing. If you pay more for a ticket, you will be less likely to be involuntarily bumped. If the doctor knew this, he essentially declined the insurance.
Again, it is most likely possible that United Airlines was the least-cost bearer of the risk and will (or should) make sure people are involuntarily bumped in the departure lounge and not once they board the plane. If United Airlines didn't anticipate this situation far enough in advance to keep people from actually boarding the aircraft, they could possibly charter a private jet to ferry the four crew members to their next location. I expect this option will look much more attractive to airlines in the future.
How many of us know about the greater possibility of being involuntarily bumped when we book a cheap ticket? Not many before the weekend, I expect. More should know it now. But instead because of the news coverage, we blame United Airlines and the Chicago airport security staff for the incident.
Most of my friends seem to disagree with my take on this situation, arguing that the customer should not have been removed violently. But the customer was actively resisting, causing a large fuss. Maybe he owes all the other passengers compensation for having delayed the flight by two hours and for having disturbed them so much.
I may have missed a few things, so I'm perfectly willing to adjust my take on the situation.