Beating Up a Doctor on a United Flight Was Terrible… Was It Unavoidable?

I wrote earlier about a doctor who was dragged off a United Express flight last night when the airline needed to transport crew instead of four passengers. He needed to get to work at a hospital the next day. United, though, needed crew in place in Louisville.

In this case it doesn’t appear that United sold more tickets than seats, rather they discovered for operational reasons they couldn’t carry as many passengers as expected. They needed to position crew at the flight’s destination.

    Credit: @Tyler_Bridges

What I wanted to explore here, though, is a comment from reader neversink,

You buy a ticket. You should be guaranteed a seat. Overbooking should be illegal. And if the airline wants people to leave, they should up the ante to the market rate until someone takes the offer. Whatever it takes. Even if it takes $20,000 to get someone off the plane. The airlines play this game at the passengers inconvenience. It’s time the airlines were inconvenienced.

Why Airlines Overbook

While there wasn’t an oversale in this situation, most airlines in North America will sell more seats than they can carry passengers. They use historical information to determine how many passengers are likely not to show up for a flight. They want each seat to go out with a passenger in it.

Maybe they figure passengers are likely to oversleep a Sunday morning flight out of Las Vegas, so they can transport home those passengers that do make it to the plane. Passengers that oversleep expect to stand by on a later flight (either free or for a fee). Either way, an empty airline seat is a spoiling resource.

Airlines are pretty good at guessing these things, taking data like when the flight is and how far in advance tickets were purchased. And indeed they’re getting better, the rate of denied boardings has been on the decline over the past two decades. (In 2000, 0.21% of passengers were denied boarding (voluntary and involuntary) by the largest US airlines. In 2015, 0.09% were.)

You might think airlines shouldn’t overbook, sell each seat one time. But if that were the case airlines wouldn’t really be able to allow passengers the freedom to switch flights at will either on refundable tickets or merely by paying a change fee. Show up 15 minutes late for the airport, buy a new ticket.

What Does it Even Mean Not to Overbook?

If an airline sells exactly the number of seats they have on a plane, they still may not be able to accommodate everyone. Sometimes weather requires the plane to take on more fuel, and so they have carry fewer passengers (weight and balance issues can even affect a widebody aircraft).

And the number of seats on a plane itself can seem somewhat arbitrary. American Airlines has more seats on a Boeing 777 than Cathay Pacific does, so American is more likely to be unable to carry as many passengers as the plane has seats on Los Angeles – Hong Kong than Cathay is.

Is American overbooking by selling each seat on their plane, knowing that sometimes heavy winds on the long flight could cause challenges?

If Airlines Couldn’t Overbook, Had to Sell Fewer Seats, Prices Would Be Higher

You may not like the idea of overbooking, but denied boardings are rare. And the flexibility to do it means that the airline has more seats to sell.

Ban overbooking and that’s fewer seats being sold. That means higher costs per passenger (since you’re spreading the costs over fewer ticket sales). And quite simply, holding demand for seats constant reducing the quantity of seats supplied raises their price.

But Shouldn’t Airlines Spend More Time Seeking Volunteers?

It often seems that airlines should work harder to find volunteers to take a bump in exchange for compensation, instead of involuntarily denying boarding to passengers who have to get where they’re going. Maybe the airline only offered $200 or $400 in vouchers, why not $600 or $800 in cash especially when they’ll be on the hook to pay out to passengers involuntarily bumped. Should the airline here have been forced to keep upping the ante to $2000 or $5000?

Except that the time spent doing this might cause even bigger problems. Or at least it’s reasonable for the airline to think ex ante that it might.

  • Delaying a flight even a little could cause crew to time out and the whole flight to cancel
  • Government may have given the plane a very specific takeoff time (air traffic control) and if they miss their window the flight could be substantially delayed or even cancelled
  • A late flight might cause passengers to misconnect with their next flight and be stranded
  • And late arriving crew would delay other flights
  • Or crew might be required to sleep in the next day to meet legal minimum rest requirements

There are No Guarantees in Air Travel

JetBlue doesn’t overbook their flights but saw a big spike in involuntary denied boardings. It turns out they had to substitute small aircraft on a number of occasions, which had fewer seats than the original planes.

Weather cancels flights. Mechanical issues cancel flights. Airline IT meltdowns cancel flights.

A friend had her Delta flights cancelled three days in a row last week (on day two we got her a United flight using miles that Delta had said was unavailable, no time to argue over a rebooking).

Sometimes flights are delayed and you don’t make your connection, and sometimes those connections are the last flight of the day — or even the week.

Air travel is complicated, and subject to the whims of mother nature, the skills of the airline, and the vagaries of chance.

Unfortunately you have to roll with it, and if you really really need to be somewhere you need to build in a cushion (something my friend on Delta did, flying to Los Angeles a day and a half early, but with Delta’s operational problems this last week and their personnel and IT failures it simply still wouldn’t have been enough).

What Should the Doctor Have Done? And How Should United Have Reacted?

In this case the flight was delayed, and the situation went bad. It’s reasonable for an outside observer to think the police should have found a less confrontational way to work with the passengers who were ordered to get off the plane than to drag them off and bloody them!

In fact that’s my hunch, fully realizing that we only have seen video of what happened once the man was being dragged off and not what happened leading up to that.

However when an airline orders you off the plane, you need to follow instructions even if it sucks. You could face criminal charges for failing to do so. You could wind up in Guantanamo and frankly no one wants to be water boarded…

If the passenger had gotten off the plane, they still could have made it to the hospital the next day albeit more worse for wear. There was a later Chicago – Louisville flight on United — and also on American (if they’d hurried) — although it’s not clear United would have put them on it. It would have been a 4.5 hour drive but a rental car is possible. It would have been ~ $300 with UberX. These options are all bad but it’s better than being dragged off by cops and bloodied.

Sometimes there are no good options so you look for the least bad. That’s basically never confronting crew and then confronting police. Confrontations with police can end badly not in an airport. In an airport the stakes are even greater, and this situation could have become worse than it did.

While the police probably could and should have done better, in some sense the man got lucky.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. P.S. “~ $300 with UberX. These options are all bad but it’s better than being dragged off by cops and bloodied.”

    You’re wrong here too. Getting bloodied allowed the doctor to file a lawsuit & eventually settle for over 1 million dollars compensation from the airline. So in other words:

    – Demanding your rights under U.S. Consumer Protection laws (bought a ticket which the business refused to honor) and US Criminal Law (assault & battery) will net you a large financial award. That’s why these laws exist….. to protect the customer from moralfree megacorps & overzealous police


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