On Monday, shortly before the scheduled takeoff of a Louisville-bound United Airlines flight from Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, the decades-long struggle of private airline corporations to wring every cent of profit out of their operations at the expense of customers reached a logical conclusion.
From cutting food offerings, to drastically reducing legroom, to consolidating the industry through buyouts, private airline companies have tried their best to maximize profit by squeezing customers (sometimes literally). Now, United has taken to defending their bottom line with violence.
“Overbooking,” or selling more seats than the airplane has, is a way to pad profits by increasing the likelihood of full flights despite inevitable cancellations. If there aren’t enough cancellations, airlines bank on people voluntarily accepting a sum of money, statutorily capped at $1350 but often far less, to be re-booked on a later flight.
The argument proponents of the practice make is that overbooking allows flights to be cheaper, making it a win-win scenario for corporations and customers. They do this despite recent record profits and reduced quality on the consumer end. However, those same previously-mentioned statutes provide that airlines may “involuntarily deny boarding” as long as the person who is denied is compensated.
What is especially outrageous last Monday is that the flight was not oversold; the four needed seats were for crew members who had to be in Louisville for work the next day.
Enter 69-year-old Dr. David Dao, a Vietnamese-American physician. Normally, when trying to rectify an overbooked flight, airlines offer passengers sums of money before they board the plane. Whether or not this was attempted before Dr. Dao’s Delta flight was boarded by passengers is unclear.
After passengers turned down offers of $400, and then $800, four passengers were chosen “at random” to deplane. Dr. Dao, in video later released, is shown telling Chicago Aviation police officers that he was unable to leave because he had patients he needed to see. After a low-volume back and forth conversation, the Aviation police officers ripped him from his seat and dragged him by his arms off the plane. Dr. Dao somehow managed to get back onto the plane – footage shows him frantically pacing, repeating “I have to go home” in a thick Vietnamese accent.
Business Insider has obtained a statement from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which confirmed that the agency is reviewing the incident “to determine whether the airline complied with the oversales rule,” but also stated that “it is the airlines’ responsibility to determine its own fair boarding priorities.”
In a widely ridiculed, tone-deaf statement, United CEO Oscar Munoz said that his employees “had no choice” but to call security officers and apologized for having to “re-accommodate” passengers. Munoz and the whole United Airlines Corporation have been backpedaling ever since. United Airlines stock has dropped 1.1%, eliminating about $225 million in value.
The profit motive has shown, once again, that it can motivate humans to carry out inhuman acts. Regardless of whether or not this was a rare incident, we should all empathize with Dr. Dao and take time to question the status quo of air travel today.
The deregulatory spiral, begun when President Ronald Reagan fired the air traffic controllers when they went on strike in the 1980’s, continues. A passenger who paid for his seat is dragged off a flight bloodied and unconscious. How much worse will it get?