GETTING “bumped” from a flight took on a whole new meaning on April 9th, when United Airlines summoned aviation-security officers to drag a passenger off a plane kicking and screaming—literally. The company needed to transport employees from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky, and the flight was too full to accommodate them. After no one accepted United’s offer of $1,000 to relinquish their seat, the airline selected an already-seated traveller at random and ordered him to disembark. When he refused—he is a doctor, and said he could not change planes because he had to attend to patients—he was physically removed from the flight against his will and, despite being bloodied, managed to sneak back on before being taken off again. The entire imbroglio was captured on video and has now been seen over 19m times around the world.
Involuntary denials of boarding (IDB), as they are formally dubbed, are rarely this contentious, but are a fact of life in commercial air travel. Because a small share of passengers generally fail to turn up—often simply because their previous flight arrived late—companies usually offer a few more tickets for sale than they can actually accommodate, counting on no-shows to maximise the chances that a plane departs exactly at its full capacity. Although their finely tuned statistical models usually manage to avoid mishaps, every so often the systems underestimate the number of travellers who will turn up, forcing carriers to “bump” excess passengers to a subsequent flight. Most of the time they can find volunteers to accept financial compensation in exchange for a later arrival. When no one is willing to wait, conflict can ensue.
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