Airline passengers who needed a primer on the term “involuntary deboarding” got a graphic one via cellphone video of a passenger being dragged down the aisle of a United Airlines flight Sunday night at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
Despite being within its rights to remove the man, United deserves the public relations black eye and whatever hit to the bottom line it receives. And though it’s almost coincidental that the dragged man is Asian, tens of millions of Chinese citizens — China is the world’s second busiest aviation market — are outraged.
United removed the man and three other passengers (more willingly) to open seats for another United crew needed for a flight in Louisville. Whether the dragged man is really a doctor with patients to see the next morning, as he claimed, is unclear. It’s also unclear whether United, as it says, had no other options. In bumping the four paying passengers, airline officials said they needed to make room for the extra flight crew to prevent another flight from being canceled. United could have raised its offer to get another willing passenger. Its fear of starting a bidding war is understandable, but it, not the unwilling passenger, created this situation.
United and other airlines should pay — sometimes more than the minimal bribe — when they keep or force passengers with tickets off of overbooked planes. Actually, passengers giving up their seats is common; according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, 46,000 did in 2015, and many were happy to have the money or extra ticket.
“Involuntary deboarding” as it played out on the United flight, however, ought to be reserved for genuine emergencies. Those don’t include an airline putting its own employees’ needs ahead of paying customers. None of this would be known were it not for cellphones, of course. Nor would it be getting the attention it is if airlines weren’t racking up record profits, and doing so by treating passengers more like commodities than customers. Passenger legroom and comfort are sacrificed to squeeze in more seats, new classes of passengers are created to limit perks, and fees are created for such basic items as luggage — even luggage that goes into overhead bins. And, of course, planes are routinely overbooked because in airline calculations, it makes more sense to kick someone off than to risk a vacant seat.
Thus, “involuntary deboarding” joins “air rage” as 21st century terms associated with airlines’ quest for ever-larger profits. The man dragged off of the United flight Sunday certainly wasn’t being led to slaughter, but it might have seemed so to the other cattle masquerading as passengers.