The world is rightly abuzz over an awful incident yesterday in which a man was beaten and dragged off a plane by police at Chicago's O'Hare airport for the crime of wanting to use the seat he's paid for on a United Airline flight getting ready to leave for Louisville.
The man claimed to be a doctor who had patients to see the next morning, explaining why he neither took an initial offer made to everyone on the plane to accept $400 and a hotel room for the night in exchange for voluntarily giving up his seat nor wanted to obey a straight-up order to leave, in an attempt on United's part to clear four seats for its own employees on the full flight.
No one considered even the $800 that was offered after everyone had boarded enough for the inconvenience, so United picked four seats and just ordered those in them to vacate. But the one man in question was not interested in obeying. (Buzzfeed reports, based on tweets from other passengers, that the bloodied man did eventually return to the plane.)
While United's customer service policies in this case are clearly heinous and absurd, let's not forget to also cast blame on the police officers who actually committed the brutality on United's behalf. NPR reports that the cops attacking the man "appear to be wearing the uniforms of Chicago aviation police."
While there may be something to be said for the ability for private businesses to summon the help of the police to remove people from their premises if they refuse to leave peacefully and their presence is unwanted, there is no excuse for the police to cooperate when the reason their presence is unwanted is not "causing a disturbance" or being violent or threatening to other customers, or stealing goods or services, or doing anything wrong at all, but rather wanting to peacefully use the service they legitimately paid for.
Shame on both United for calling the cops on a passenger to make the lives of their employees and business easier, and shame on the police for having any part of it.
[UPDATE: According to A.P., others may agree with the above; "Chicago aviation department says officer involved in dragging man off United flight placed on leave," A.P. tweets.]
Buzzfeed News reports an interesting tag team of evaded responsibility as they tried to report on whether this was standard operating procedure.
When asked why the airline had the man forcibly removed, and whether that was standard procedure in cases of overbooked flights, United refused to comment.
Instead they told BuzzFeed News all further questions should be referred to Chicago Police. BuzzFeed News contacted Chicago Police and were told to contact the Chicago Department of Aviation. When BuzzFeed News contacted the Chicago Department of Aviation they were transferred to a TSA message bank. A TSA spokesperson later told BuzzFeed News they were not involved and to contact Chicago Police.
It is not surprising that the wonderful and, if the price offered goes high enough always effective, voluntary means to get passengers to surrender an overbooked flight was developed by a fascinating economist from the libertarian movement thoughtworld, Julian Simon, whose role in the wonderful, rights-respecting, and economically efficient policy is detailed in this 2009 story from the Illinois News Bureau:
Thirty years ago, U.S. airlines stopped arbitrarily grounding passengers on overbooked flights, instead offering rewards if travelers give up seats to make room for hurried fliers who need to touch down on time.
Economist James Heins says the seemingly subtle switch has provided a $100 billion jolt to the U.S. economy over the last three decades - allowing airlines to run fuller, more profitable flights that in turn has trimmed air fares and increased tax revenue.
Now, he hopes the milestone anniversary finally yields much-due credit for the late Julian Simon, a fellow economist well known for slaying gloom-and-doom population growth forecasts but overlooked for the seminal contribution to aviation he developed as a professor at the University of Illinois.
"People know about the system, but they don't know where it came from," said Heins, who worked with Simon for more than a decade at the U. of I. "I think they should. There are a lot of important research breakthroughs on campuses, but few generate $100 billion in savings to the American economy."…
…Simon proposed seeking volunteers instead, offering rewards such as free airfare for a future trip if passengers agreed to wait for a later flight. He maintained that the incentive would free enough seats for travelers with a deadline, and also eliminate any negative public relations consequences.
See that, United? Offer enough incentive, eliminate negative P.R.? Seems like that might be worth it today, no? And offering the incentive means you have got to keep raising it until you find a taker, not make two offers then start cracking skulls.
Despite how much sense Simon's idea makes for airlines and passengers:
it took more than a decade to sell the idea, which finally clicked in 1979 when Simon made a pitch to Alfred Kahn, who oversaw deregulation of the airline industry under President Jimmy Carter.
"I was shocked along with everyone else when Julian actually sold it," Heins said. "Even good ideas are often a tough sell with government, probably for reasons of inertia. It's just easier to do things the way they've always been done."
Reason clips on Julian Simon, who also did great intellectual work defending and explaining the value of more humans for either a given country or the world, and fought intellectual battles against resource and environmental doomsayers.
Simon's academic paper on the auction idea for getting volunteers on overbooked flights, from the Journal of Transport and Economics and Policy in 1977.
Some video of yesterday's incident, not for the faint of heart or those waiting for their flight to take off: