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You have to be living under a rock if you haven’t heard about Sunday’s debacle where Chicago police forcibly removed a man from United flight 3411. I’ve penned my take on how I think United bungled the situation from the beginning (SEE: Thoughts on the man dragged off a flights and United’s PR nightmare), and the internet has even had a rash of memes about the incident (SEE: My 7 favorite memes from Sunday’s United “incident”). The wife of a pilot has her own take on the situation (SEE: A pilot’s wife’s take on the United passenger being forcibly removed).

My thoughts now boils down to this: United had a reasonably good reason for involuntary bumping passengers, but they mismanaged the situation. The police were called, ended up acting inappropriately and using excessive force on the man, and now United has a PR nightmare on their hands. Yes, it was a terrible incident. The man should not have suffered a concussion and lost teeth. All parties involved could have done a better job (including the man getting off the plane). United is now paying far more in terms of PR than if they had just canceled the flight from Louisville.

Repercussions of Sunday’s fiasco

Now a bill has been introduced to congress by Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), that intends to keep passengers from being involuntarily bumped from flights. This sounds good on paper, and after Sunday’s incident, you may think it sounds really good. But good intentions can have poor consequences.

The details of Van Hollen’s bill aren’t crystal clear, but some of his statement have me worried. The senator has stated, “Airlines would not be able to simply force someone to leave; they would need to reach an agreement.” And later, “Airlines should be required to offer whatever inducement is necessary to get passengers they’re trying to get off the plane to disembark.” While passengers and airline reaching an agreement sounds nice, it could lead to some pretty unreasonable situations.

I’m not sure we want to go down this road of negotiation. Imagine Sunday’s incident yet again. No one took the compensation offer at $800. What if no one had taken the offer at $2,000? Sure, it is unlikely, but it is possible. Multiply this times four necessary seats, and you’re talking some serious money for one flight.

At some point the most economical choice would be for the airline to simply cancel the flight. Or not fly the crew, which would mean canceling the flight from Louisville the next morning, impacting 50+ other passengers. Is that the way we want the overbooking issue solved? ‘Cause that is what will happen if the onus is on the airline to negotiate with passengers.

But we are going to be in this situation anyway

After the general outrage this past week, no airline is going to risk being being tarred and feathered in the court of public opinion in future situations similar to this one. Their new solution will be to simply cancel the flight and avoid the “involuntarily denied boarding” issue entirely. Gary Leff made this same argument on Wednesday. The airline could even claim that the cancellation was due to circumstances beyond their control (pretty much true), and wouldn’t owe the passengers a dime, as long as they accommodated them on later flights. Then again, you could argue that the airline precipitated the situation by overbooking the flight.

No one wants the cops called onto an airplane for a situation like Sunday’s. But if a passenger refuses to get off a flight, the only other reasonable recourse is for the airline to cancel that flight, or whatever future flights are impacted. If a common enough occurrence, this will negatively impact the airline’s revenue, thus driving up ticket prices. We’ll all pay the price in a small way.

What about drafting a law to prevent overbooking?

Again, I’m not really sure this is what we want as consumers. Multitudes of people on Facebook have called for this, painting the practice as unethical. Forbidding overbooking sounds great in theory, but it would be bad as well.

Overbooking has been a standard practice of the airline industry for years, and it helps airlines maximize revenue. People routinely do not show up for flights for a variety of reasons, and airlines know that. They have overbooking down to a science.

Not overbooking a flight would mean that an airline would sell fewer tickets for a given flight, thus making less revenue. If overbooking was banned, ticket prices are sure to increase. Unless you seriously think an airline would let a regulatory decision like that impact their bottom line. I’m not holding my breath.

Conclusion

We’ll see where this law goes. I’m not sure it is even necessary after Sunday’s incident. None of the airlines are going to risk similar PR backlash, at least not in the near future.

This was an awful incident that I hope it is never repeated. My hope is that United (and other airlines) take note of the lessons from the incident and manage situations leading up to it better, including negotiating with passengers. But if worse comes to worst, airlines should still have the “involuntarily denied boarding” card in their pocket. More laws and regulations shouldn’t be necessary.

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