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When capacity management in travel goes awry
(+ historical comparison)
Airline Passenger Forcibly Removed NY Times, (11 April, 2017)
Despite the New York Times headline ("Passenger dragged from an overbooked flight"), 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 there were available seats, but it 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.
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.
4) Ships then were much slower than today's airplanes, the scheduling also happened more gradually, and there was more time at departure ports to work out adjustments: for example by using temporary additional capacity, or shifting passengers to higher classes of travel when unused space was available there. The difficulties of making adjustments under the much short time frames of air travel is exemplified by a more recent incident (also involving United Airlines) where a US passenger in Colorado hastily booked, through a travel agent, a flight to visit her hospitalized mother in Minnesota. Soon after, the mother's condition worsened, and by contacting the airline directly, the passenger was rebooked to an earlier flight. After boarding, however, she was told she had to get off the flight. This happened because the travel agent (seeing only that the later flight booking had been cancelled) had in the meantime voided her ticket, and the United staff only noticed (after the flight was boarded) that that passenger no longer had a valid ticket. The passenger tried to buy a new ticket on the spot, but was unable to do so in time. Instead of waiting until the next available flight, she drove a thousand miles to try to get to her mother as soon as she could, but by the time she arrived the mother had unfortunately already died.
Last updated, January 28, 2022