Recent travel business (historical comparison)

When capacity management in travel goes awry


United Express Passenger Forcibly Removed  NY Times, (11 April, 2017)

Despite the New York Times headline, it seems that the April 9 afternoon United Express flight from Chicago to Louisville was not "overbooked" in the sense of more passengers at the gate than seats were available, but was completely full. After a standard offer of payment to passengers willing to voluntarily move to another flight was made, and then twice increased, without any takers, four passengers were chosen to involuntarily rebook in order to make room for four United employees who "had to get to Louisville, according to a passenger who videoed the incident. Apparently the second and third offers were made only after the plane was boarded. Three of four passengers chosen by the airline willingly left, but a fourth refused and the airline staff called in the airport police. The fourth passenger was seen to be injured as he was dragged out, possibly as a result of the force used in getting him off the plane.

Subsequent responses, updates:

United Airlines later clarified that the plane was not overbooked but was sold out. It also was reported in the press that the plane had been fully boarded even before the first attempt to have passengers voluntarily relinquish seats (for cash payment) were made. On April 12, United Airlines also announced that it would refund the fares of all passengers on the flight, and the United chairman apologized for the incident, saying "no one should be treated that way, period." He further announced that United would cease discontinue using police to remove "book, paid, seated" passengers. Chicago's Department of Aviation declared that the incident was not "in accordance with our standard operating procedure," and three officers were placed on administrative leave.


Comparison to turn of the 20th century Atlantic:

Steamship companies bringing migrants and other travelers across the Atlantic a century or more ago were not always praised for their treatment of passengers, and there were instances of passengers mistreatment occurring during periods of heavy travel, but this particular sort of incident probably never happened:


1) The steamship lines operated out of far fewer ports, and had larger local staffs on land, and the travel times were much longer. It would rarely have been necessary and made sense to send four employees from one port to another on such short notice as to require use of a ship already filled to the maximum with passengers.


2) The transatlantic ships operated with considerably lower average capacity (see also Keeling, Capacity Management) than airlines do nowadays. The chances of the next scheduled departure being full were lower, especially during a non-peak travel month such as April.


3) The ships were many times bigger than modern airliners in terms of passenger capacity, and even more so in terms of physical room. There was probably never a North Atlantic steamship voyage incapable of squeezing in four more passengers at the last minute. Many such voyages, though a relatively small minority overall, carried passengers in numbers well above normal capacity maximums. During the two world wars, many such ships routinely carried troops in numbers double or triple their peacetime passenger maximums.


Customers who seek overbooked flights (NPR, 27 April, 2017)


Last updated, April 27, 2017