Last week, most travelers thought the only “involuntary bump” they needed to worry about was one from the man in sweatpants on the morning commute. Then on Sunday, United Airlines decided to channel its inner hockey goon and forcibly remove a passenger from a flight at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. Now travelers everywhere have learned that they need to worry about another type of “involuntary bump,” one that is entirely legal despite of the objections of good sense and common decency.
A few of us have already had this experience. In the winter of 2015, I was among the 46,000 passengers who, according to the Department of Transportation, were involuntarily bumped from flights that year. In my case, I was traveling from New York back home to Chicago to teach my Saturday afternoon business ethics class. I arrived at LaGuardia for a Southwest flight on a Thursday evening before my class only to discover the flight was overbooked—by 20 people. And a big storm was coming. Also, it was Valentine’s Day weekend.
To say that I missed my flight would suggest that I got anywhere near boarding it. While no one knew that over 14,000 flights would be canceled that weekend, with the snow storm bearing down, it was clear that if we didn’t get out that night we weren’t going to escape from New York anytime soon. Accordingly, only two passengers took a voluntary bump, and the rest of us were introduced to its ugly step-sister.
As I have already noted, this is all legal. Commercial airlines are governed by “Contract of Carriage” rules, a series of federal regulations that aim to protect passengers by imposing legal duties on carriers. Airlines are allowed to oversell flights, and in the overwhelming majority of cases, this doesn’t present a problem. Ticket holders don’t show up for their flights or rebook their travel at the last minute, and even when they are short a few seats, most of the time airlines can induce a college kid or two to fly home later in the day for a few hundred dollars in vouchers. Only rarely do airlines back themselves into a corner when, in cases like my own, none of the passengers want to give up their seats. At that point, another federal regulation kicks in, “Denied Boarding Compensation,” a rule that states that an airline has to pay you four times the face value of your ticket, up to $1,350, in order to involuntarily bump you from your flight.
In the United case, the carrier doesn’t appear to have abided by either of these rules. On the one hand, the airline only offered passengers $800 for their involuntary bump. More importantly, however, it only made that offer after passengers had already taken their seats on the plane. Instead of an involuntary bump, United enforced something closer to an involuntary booting.
You don’t have to be a public relations genius to realize that this is a debacle for the “Come Fly the Friendly Skies” brand. Initially, United’s CEO Oscar Munoz proved himself exactly that: not a public relations genius. His official report to legal authorities on Sunday night described David Dao, a medical doctor who was quite literally dragged from the plane, as “disruptive and belligerent.” In his subsequent letter to United employees, he affirmed that the staff at O’Hare had “followed established procedures for dealing with situations like this” and stated that he “emphatically” stood behind them.
By Tuesday morning, Munoz had other reasons to be emphatic, when pre-market trading saw United’s stock price off as much as 6.3%, or nearly $1.4 billion in market value. “I deeply apologize to the customer forcibly removed and to all the customers aboard,” he said, promising a full investigation. “No one should ever be mistreated this way.”
Passengers should be relieved by the about-face on the truly ugly incident, but they should also tell Munoz: Don’t stop there! With domestic airlines systematically perverting plain English by transforming many of the basic elements of air travel into “amenities” you must pay for, and doing everything in their power to ensure that economy class has all the comforts of a sardine can, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to conclude that airlines are growing accustomed to treating their passengers like garbage to be stuffed into, or occasionally tossed off of, their planes.
Just as it has in the United case, social media can, and should, play a role in fighting back. Passengers should not hesitate to document, and share, shabby treatment, but they should also be sure to highlight the good actors too. After my “involuntary bump,” I wrote a letter to Southwest describing my experience and noting that because I bought a discount ticket, the payment for my troubles was actually $4 less than the $300 voucher I would have received if I had taken a voluntary bump. I explained that I was a “great fan” of Southwest and fully understood that the company hadn’t intended to strand me, but given that the best option it gave me was to stay in New York for additional two nights and then fly me to Milwaukee (which, you’ll note, is not the city I live in). I felt airlines could do better.
And it did, reimbursing me for my trouble and offering me a sincere apology, which I was glad to accept. United has now offered Dao a sincere apology—Munoz said Wednesday morning that he felt “shame” over the incident—and one suspects they will soon be offering him a lot of money too. He deserves it. He deserved better. The rest of us do too.
John Paul Rollert is an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and writes the In-House Ethicist column for the Chicago Booth Review.