United Airlines Physically Removes Passenger, Some Perspective

You may have seen video of United Airlines having a passenger forcibly removed from one of their aircraft.  It certainly is troubling to see the police involved with removing a paying customer from an airplane using excessive force.  We must remember however, that this is United’s plane and as such, if they ask you to leave, you are no longer a passenger – you are a trespasser. (Read the fine print).

Before we get into the outrage, let’s get our facts straight first.  There is misinformation aplenty to be had in social media and most MSM articles.

Here is what a pilot friend shared with us here about the situation that United Airlines was in and what they were dealing with:

So here’s what happened:

At the last minute, United had to “deadhead” a crew to Louisville to be in position for a flight the next morning. Due to previous delays, cancellations, etc., this was not previously planned.

The flight to Louisville was full (not oversold). But adding the deadheading crew put them in the oversell situation.

This is from one of the pilot’s of the deadheading crew: “We were scheduled to DH on an earlier flight on Expressjet which went down for hours for MX, so scheduling reassigned us last minute to our medal” It was a last minute reassignment. They arrived at the gate after boarding began.

United basically has two options: 1) Remove a couple passengers to get the deadheading crew on board, or 2) cancel a flight the next morning that could have as many as 76 people on board. Clearly, United would rather choose option 1.

The first thing the gate agent will do is remove any “standby” passengers. If none are on board in the first place, then they will begin asking for people to voluntarily take a voucher and be put on the next flight, most likely the following morning. If there are no volunteers, the airline must remove revenue passengers.

To remove a revenue passenger, United follows a certain priority (the passengers are not selected randomly as so many articles and posts are claiming). Generally speaking, the first to be removed are passengers who bought from 3rd party sites like Expedia by time of check-in. Then it goes to United.com by time of check-in. And the last in priority to be removed would be their MileagePlus members.

Keep in mind, all of this is explained in the fine print when you buy a ticket. United is obligated to get you to your final destination, but it doesn’t matter if it’s on the flight that you booked or next weekend. It’s all part of the contract.

Certainly, United was in a tough position, but they had no choice but to remove the passenger. And the passenger is on the property of United (technically a regional airline named Republic Airlines), and failure to comply with crew member instructions and contractual obligations as part of the ticket purchase puts the passenger and the airline in an unpleasant situation.

As a side note, as an airline pilot myself, I do not want to carry a passenger that demonstrates a refusal to follow instructions. In the event of an emergency, I expect that my orders will be followed without question. Failure to do so could have deadly consequences.

The flight the following morning was already being delayed so that the deadheading crew could have the minimum required rest under 14 CFR 117 (10 hours from the end of their duty period at the airport until they report the next day). The drive from Chicago O’Hare to Louisville is 4 hours 56 minutes according to Google Maps. Further delaying and disrupting 76 passengers the next morning so that they don’t have to displace a couple passengers the night before would be a strange decision. And chartering an airplane to move a crew is even more expensive.

In this one instance, United is facing a dreadful and costly PR nightmare. But most often it is the cheapest and most efficient option.

United (and every other airline for that matter) has determined that it is more cost effective for them to simply have rules 21 and 25 in their contract of carriage that allow them to remove a passenger.

Of course, the left (and most people) is(are) enraged:

Even the great Glenn Greenwald is feeding into the hysteria:

That’s Capitalism!!! (RAGE!!!)

But is it?

There will be calls for boycotts, more regulations, the government to “do something”.  The trouble is – they already have, and that is the problem.

United Airlines is subject to the whims of government.  Even with deregulation of the industry in the 1980’s which resulted in lower prices so the average person could even afford to fly – there is still heavy regulation in this industry.

There is a cartel arrangement between the major airlines and the government to keep a virtual monopoly on the system (airlines, airports, etc…) that keeps out much of the competition that would otherwise be free to provide various levels of service, quality and prices for the consumer.

I will dig this up, but I have a great lecture by Murray Rothbard where he discusses airline regulations that were in place historically, and what the effect was of the level of deregulation that did occur.

This post to be updated once I locate that.


I found the Rothbard lecture where he talks about the airline industry, the relevant part starts at 13:00:

Of course, the solution is not more government, more regulation and more authoritarianism.

Here is a fellow AnCap’s take on the situation:

 Seems like an easy one to me.

1. Overbooking flights with the expectation that some people will miss their flight results in a higher average operating efficiency and lower average cost passed on to the customer.

2. Booking exactly the available seats results in a lower average operating efficiency and higher average cost passed on to the customer, but avoids the case of customers booting each other off if everyone happens to show up.

3. Booking fewer than the available seats results in still lower operating efficiency and still higher average cost passed on to the customer, but avoids this rare case of booting customers due to last-minute deadheading crew transfers.

Conceivably, the airline could offer all three types of tickets with tiered pricing and up-front disclaimers about exactly what you’re getting. Customers can choose what kind of ticket they want based on travel requirements and/or risk tolerance. Problem solved.

I think the main issue here is that United (and most/all other airlines) really don’t make these corner-case priorities obvious. You really have to dig to get the details, and most people don’t, so when it happens to them it seems unfair.

Bidding up would have saved them a TON of money relative to what they’ve brought on themselves now (even if they didn’t get any takers until the $10-20k range, I’d bet), and they would have looked like the good guy instead of the bad guy. I’m sure there’s no such policy in place though, and a quick-thinking PR-minded gate agent probably would have been fired if he or she had tried it.

Another AnCap friend relayed the following story about the bidding up of prices for giving up a seat in a “reverse auction” method:

I observed something similar on my Lufthansa flight out of Frankfurt last weekend. The flight was overbooked so the airline offered 600 euros + a free overnight hotel to the first three volunteers willing to fly out the next day. My wife and I had an interesting conversation about our personal price points – mine was 1,000 euros, my wife’s was an upgrade to business or first class. Eventually three passengers came forward to accept the vouchers so the airline didn’t have to bid up.

This is not the fault of capitalism.  

This is the fault of the lack of capitalism allowed in the market.  That’s not to say that everything will be rainbow-pooping pink unicorns every day, all the time – but, the government isn’t that either – and in fact is much, much worse.

United was put into a position where they could not succeed.  They will likely lose customers due to this debacle.  It’s unfortunate that this happened and we can only hope that one day people will be allowed to make their own decisions with their own property without third parties arbitrarily binding their hands.

In AnCapistan, the situation would be far less likely to occur.  But, if it did, then physical removal of a person who is not abiding by the contract they agreed to is sometimes the only option.


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