It may be legal under carriage contracts to forcibly remove peaceful passengers from a plane, as United did earlier this week, but it’s a bad idea.

Not all passengers who book tickets show up for flights.  To account for this and maximize profit, airlines overbook flights.  But what happens when too many people show up and there aren’t enough seats?  Easy… call security and drag a passenger down the aisle and off the plane. (Cue “friendly skies” music.)

Two things could have prevented this public relation black eye. United could have:

  1. Reserved seats for their 4 employees rather than announcing “we have United employees that need to fly to Louisville tonight. … This flight’s not leaving until four people get off.” This would have enabled them to ensure the seats were available for their crew.
  2. Increased the bounty until they got a volunteer. Would this have hurt profitability – sure! But after milking overbooking for years, the supply/demand curve sometimes favors the passenger and United should pay the price. Raise it high enough and soon people would have been lining up to volunteer to get off the plane.

As I’ve remarked before, customers shouldn’t pay for poor company decisions – companies should.  Here, United tried to avoid paying for their mistake. But, now, through the help of our hyper-connected world United is paying in the court of public opinion. No doubt the damages will amount to much more than the $200 or $300 they might have had to concede had they behaved responsibly.

The pivot point is that companies in commodity markets (like airlines) must provide excellent, not abhorrent, service to their customers.  Laws may protect United in the courts, but the court of public opinion operates on a different and fluid set of statutes and is reluctant to forgive.

United Airlines’ Actions – Legal but Unwise
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