Taking a Step Back from UA 3411

With the recent social media outrage at United’s scandal on board UA 3411, I must admit that my initial reaction was complete disbelief that such an abhorrent thing could occur on a US domestic flight. While I do not mean that as any sort of credence that US flight carriers have amazing customer service, I mean that more as “how could they not have considered the media ramifications of such a move?!” Now, having thought about it on-and-off for about a day, I actually feel like that’s really the only thing that they messed up there. I recognize that this point of view may be considered callous and certainly unpopular, but hear me out.

To start off, let’s talk about what factually happened.

  1. UA 3411 flight was overbooked.
  2. United asked for volunteers to board next flight at compensation of upwards of $800 + hotel stay.
  3. No one volunteered, so United decided to randomize the selection of individuals to be “volun-forced” to board next flight.
  4. Couple was picked, they left. A doctor was selected to leave, he refused.
  5. Doctor was dragged out by Chicago Aviation Police forcibly. Injuries incurred.

Now, let’s talk about what’s “wrong”:

  1. Overbooking. As a lot of people outraged about airlines overbooking their flights, I actually feel this is not as evil as people think, and definitely not a problem specific to United Airlines. Overbooking is something like rating by credit score in the insurance industry (sorry, gotta stick to what I know). Your initial reaction is always going to be – “that’s not fair!”, but the truth of it is that it probably leads to lower flight prices for everybody. Without any sort of regulation stating that airlines cannot overbook a flight, the airline that employs overbooking (even with the gaudy compensations should the flight truly become over-filled) will out-compete all other airlines. By ensuring near maximal capacity on your flights, you definitely can spread out the per unit cost better than if you can only guarantee 80% capacity on your flights, which leads to lower prices. Unless we as a market can suggest that we value getting on our flight 100% of the time (over, say, 99% of time) is more important than cheaper fares, we have forced the airlines’ hands. They (and indirectly, we) have made the clear tradeoff that cheaper airfares greatly outweigh the inconvenience. In fact, I would almost argue that the fact that airlines hire mathematicians and statisticians to create models to forecast the probabilities of overbooking to minimize the negative PR has shown to me that they have been more than sufficiently responsible in utilizing this profit maximizing tool. Now whether or not you believe on principle this should be allowed, that’s a discussion for another day. But in an unregulated environment, I find no fault in airlines that do this and certainly not United Airlines.
  2. The $800 + hotel compensation. To be honest, this is probably the primary thing that I think United Airlines played incorrectly. Even then, its a bit grey. I do think that they should’ve increased the compensation until someone agrees to it. I believe that the overbooking was a fault of United Airlines (though perfectly legal), and a good way to avoid negative PR would be to hit a point in which you get the necessary volunteers to take another flight. Now, whether or not there would be any takers with the maximal benefit of $1350 (I think we should be asking why is there even a cap on the maximal benefit here) can only be left to speculation (in fact, it may be the case that the hotel + $800 hits the maximal benefit of $1350 and that United’s hands were tied).
  3. Randomizing “volunteers” to leave the plane. Okay, first, let’s get over this whole “volunteer” vs “non-volunteer” business. Yes, they were forced off the planes. No they did not volunteer. At the point in which the randomization occurred, I do not believe anyone believed they would be “volunteering” when chosen. It was clear they would be asked to leave the plane, which, by the way, is perfectly legal and at the discretion of United. Let’s not skew the discussion with mockery of United’s definition of “volunteering” – at that point, it was way beyond that. Now, given that you absolutely HAD to remove people on the plane to make room for United employees, randomizing is probably the fairest approach (pun intended). So really, the only qualm that you could possibly pick here is whether or not it was an “absolute must” to remove people on the plane to make room for United employees. Unfortunately, I do not know enough of the logistics here to say that there wouldn’t be a better approach, but I am also sure that neither do any of the other people that responded so vehemently on social media. Should United have considered another approach? Probably. Did they consider other approaches? Most likely. Would this be horrible PR? Definitely. Is this illegal? Definitely not.
  4. Doctor refusing to leave. This. This is the fact that everyone glossed over. From all the hurricane of responses on the internet, the hidden implication is that the doctor, without a doubt, was entitled to be there. I agree that he paid for the ticket, but if we were to believe that in #3 above that United HAD the right to remove people from the plane in a case of an overbooking (which a simple google search could verify), the doctor was refusing to abide by the rules! I truly believe that the doctor himself did not know he was refusing to abide by United’s rules (as I’m not sure if the overbooking clause is published in any fine print, and even if it is, I highly doubt anyone read it), but nonetheless, the doctor himself refused to abide by the “law” of the airline. He was no more entitled to his seat than anyone else on that plane and, in this situation, no one was entitled to their seat in an overbooked situation.
  5. Doctor being forcibly dragged out of the flight. First, I do want to point out that the security guard that dragged the doctor out is part of the Chicago Aviation Police acting under the orders of United Airlines. Whether or not that matters, thats up to you. But now, if we have established in #3 that United was within their legal bounds and that #4 the doctor was the one not abiding by the rules, then its fairly clear to see that the doctor was, for a lack of better phrase, “resisting arrest.” The doctor had to be removed from the plane (to guarantee the integrity of the “randomization” in #3) yet he was refusing to do so. Now, I can’t speak to what happened that caused the injuries, but I am going assume that the doctor struggled against the “arrest,” and in the chaos, he had to be subdued. I’m sure all of you are aware of how small those airplane seats are and thus, how difficult it would be to remove a struggling individual from that seat. Note that I am not condoning what was done, but I do believe that it was not done out of malice and certainly not intentional. It is certainly tragic that the doctor was injured in this exchange, but if you look at police videos of arrests (and I do recognize that upholding airline laws and criminal laws do have key differences, but the nature of the actions and consequences are undeniably similar), I’m not sure you can really find malicious intent in this exchange. Now, I do feel like the doctor getting dragged out is a bit excessive (I felt they could’ve helped him up and walked him out), but I feel like thats beyond the principle that everyone is discussing.

Some additional notes:

  1. There has been some discussion regarding the profession of the doctor (verified?) and the fact that he needs to see patients the next day. Unless you agree that certain professions should get better treatment on flights due to the nature of their job, I think we can agree that his “doctorship” matters very little. The focus on his profession just seeks to over-sensationalize the situation. Randomization chose him and that is fair enough to me (unless he provides proof of more than compelling evidence why he HAS to make that flight).
  2. A lot of people seem to citing that the police is here to protect the people not to intimidate the people. Uh, no. The police is here to enforce the laws. The lawmakers are here to ensure that, by enforcing the laws, the police are protecting the people. As a social construct, I believe that it is in our best interest to protect each other, but thats NOT the role of the police. The police is here to enforce the laws – we can only hope (well, we can do better by electing the law makers) that by doing so, they are protecting our best interests.
  3. Some people have argued that the United employees on that plane should have spoken out/taken action to stop the Aviation Police from forcibly removing the doctor from the plane. But let me ask you, how many people have you seen “fighting” the police to stop an arrest?

All in all, I think this goes back to my qualm about social media. In this day and age, we have access to so much information at such a rapid pace, all of which is goading us into making snap judgments. Even in this case, in which we are exposed to a video which almost seems “impossible” to take out of context, we jumped to a conclusion and picked up our pitchforks way too soon. I think we should demand an investigation, demand a response from United – that I have no question. But instead of leaping out and condemning what we do not understand, we should all take a step back and remove our emotions from the facts.

Perhaps you agree with me, perhaps you do not. I do not seek to convince you, I just seek to provide another point of view for your consideration.

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