It was clearly a bad idea for United Airlines to drag a passenger kicking, screaming and bleeding out of a seat he had paid for. Many of the industry's critics are using this occasion to drive home their complaints of "class systems" whereby passengers in first or business class get fluffy feather pillows and those in coach are given legroom suitable for a dachshund.
The problem isn't that people paying more are getting more. That's the way of the world. He who pays more gets a choicer cut of steak. She who pays more gets more gigabytes in the smartphone. We are consumers, and if we don't like the deal, we don't have to buy.
Speaking for myself, I'd rather spend the extra hundreds that I'd have to shell out for a fancier seat at a four-fork restaurant in the destination city. Not that I would.
The problem in air travel as in much of American life is this: There's an upper class and there's a budget class, but there's not much of a middle class anymore. One can often can eke out a middle-class existence in economy class by paying extra for such amenities as added legroom and the right to check a bag.
The class system wears real thin when it comes to choosing who gets booted off overbooked flights. The airlines do not touch a hair on premium-class customers. And they're reportedly gentler with frequent flyers. It should be an iron law of consumer justice, however, that when one pays for an airline ticket — whether for a stateroom or steerage — one is entitled to a seat.
There is almost always a price at which passengers on overbooked flights will voluntarily relinquish their seats. I've seen takers of generous voucher-cash offers skip away as though it was their lucky day. (Federal law requires airlines to pay bumped passengers, but Congress should raise the $1,350 limit.)
And having to play musical chairs for a seat on an overbooked flight can be highly stressful. My story:
On a trip to Mobile, Alabama, I had to change planes in (you get one guess) Atlanta. That my "ticket" to the connecting flight instructed me to inquire at the gate for a seat number was a bad sign.
The flight was, of course, overbooked. I asked the reps at the counter (very nice people, by the way) about my odds of getting to Mobile that night. They "usually" found room for everyone, I was told, but there were about six people ahead of me on "the list."
Out of curiosity, I asked whether those who don't get on are put up for the night at a nice hotel with a sauna. The answer was negative. They surely saw some steam coming out of my ears, but they're used to that.
And so here I was thinking that I might miss the opening festivities of my conference in Mobile. I imagined what it would be like wandering aimlessly around the ATL corridors in the dead of night. The anticlimax is I got on the flight, though not without some injury to my consumer pride.
Air travel is cheap, and there are those who will go for the lowest fare. Fine. But there ought to be an option that, for a few dollars more, provides a package of middle-class amenities without forcing passengers to custom order this comfort or that.
The higher price would also compensate airlines for the cost of some empty seats. That would seem a better alternative to flagrant overbooking. Bouncing customers from seats they've paid for, even nonviolently, can't possibly be good for business.