On April 9th a United Airlines flight departing from Chicago O’Hare airport informed customers of an all-too familiar reality of modern travel: The flight was overbooked, and four passengers would need to give up their seats.
The four seats were not needed by other paying customers, but by United employees. Up to 1,000 dollars (presumably in United vouchers) was offered in exchange for the inconvenience, but unlike the standard protocol – a deal was not struck before passengers boarded the aircraft. This meant that four customers would have to de-plane and give up their seats to employees of the same airline they paid good money to in exchange for a service they expected to be rendered in full.
If you have been paying attention to the news or social media over the past day or so, you know how this ends. Three passengers left the plane after being randomly selected. The fourth, citing that he was a doctor and had patients to see, refused to give up the seat that he had paid for. In response, United brought in the muscle and had him forcibly removed, resulting in a bloodied face according to video footage captured by other passengers that were present.
The videos went viral, with over 120 million views and rising. Why is this receiving so much attention? As shocking as the footage is, it’s not because of the passenger himself. It boils down to this being yet another example (symptom?) of the broken air travel environment in the United States, and almost everyone can identify with plight caused by shady business practices that have become normal for the airline industry.
The airlines business went through tough financial times in the days following 9/11, presumably from a lingering fear of flying by many in this country, but also because of rising oil prices. The major airlines started to raise ticket prices and charge for checked bags in an effort to stay solvent. They also initiated what is now the common practice of overbooking flights, betting that a few customers on every flight wouldn’t show up.
At some point revenue was back in the black, and oil had fallen to prices that hadn’t been seen in decades. Did the airlines stop tacking on fees? Nope. They realized how much of a necessity modern air travel is, and knew they could get away with whatever they wanted.
So they continued to raises prices on bags, charged extra for exit row and “economy plus,” seats, and even started charging to pick your seat when booking. Despite the increasing size of the average American, they began steadily decreasing the space between rows. Of course, overbooking flights continues and travelers routinely have to pay the price for airlines’ risky gambling habit.
And times are good if you are in the airline business these days. They are enjoying record profits across the board, and North American-based companies are collectively taking in more than double the net revenue from air travel than the rest of the world combined.
I’m a believer in the free market and capitalism, but I also believe in good business practices. The airlines have the right to raise prices and conduct business, and even overbook flights if they want to. But at what point have their practices become bad business, and even unethical? And is it even a truly free market with the merger of so many airline companies, creating near monopolistic conditions?
The major airlines enjoy a cushion for their lackluster business practices because airline travel is a modern necessity for many in this country. Much to my chagrin, we don’t have a comprehensive high-speed rail network in this country to offer an alternative; many are left to do business with the airlines because they have no other choice.
As a former small-business owner I hate the idea of government being involved in business anymore than is absolutely necessary. But there are areas of commerce that do need regulation, such as the financial sector and other businesses that risk their customer’s assets. The airline industry now falls into that category because of their institutionalized practice of overbooking flights. The incident in Chicago should be all the evidence anyone needs to support the need for checking the power of the airlines.