[Update: United Airlines has apparently agreed with the conclusion below, and has changed its policies so that once a passenger has taken their seat, they cannot be replaced by a United crew member needing a seat. That still leaves lots of wiggle room. United also says they will not use police unless a passenger is disruptive. All this to the good.]
David Dao, the doctor dragged from a United Airlines flight this week suffered a concussion, a broken nose, two broken front teeth, and certainly a trauma that is worthy of PTSD.
So, let’s play a little game of ethics-in-economics thinking.
First, presumably the airline thought it was within its rights to evict the passenger, even though he was already in his seat waiting for take-off.
Second, the airline thought that the benefits of kicking him off were worth the costs, namely, they would get a flight crew of four to Louisville in time for the next flight to Newark to take off.
Let’s suppose the second flight serviced a plane of 100 passengers. Using standard utilitarian calculus, the inconvenience of one passenger would not justify inconveniencing 100 other passengers on that second flight. Kicking off David Dao makes perfect sense when you use economic and utilitarian logic.
Of course, specifics matter to a utilitarian calculus. The passenger evicted was a doctor. Perhaps he was needed in Louisville to perform life-saving surgery, in which case the doctor’s situation was far more than an inconvenience.
Luckily for us, most airlines solve the overbooking problem by using the price system, giving a bonus to those who voluntarily inconvenience themselves, creating a win-win situation. This time, no one took the bonus bait, even though the reward got up $800.
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The airline then simply chose some passengers to evict (not sure by what allocation system). They compounded that by using force. Herein lies the ethical problem behind utilitarian and economic calculus: there is no respect for human rights—at all.
The airline’s approach was unethical on several grounds. First, considering the lawsuit that will happen, the horrible bad press, and so on, the cost-benefit calculation the airline made was way off base. Even if the airline had to raise its bonus to $2,000 to find a willing passenger, wouldn’t that be far less costly than even one hour of a major law firm’s time to defend them in the coming lawsuit, not to mention the lost revenue from angry customers flying on other airlines?
But more importantly, by treating Dr. Dao as a piece of meat, and forcibly dragging him from the plane, the airline failed to treat Dr. Dao with a modicum of respect that would be expected under Kantian ethics.
What makes it far worse (to my mind) is that Dr. Dao was already on the plane and in his seat. He paid for it using legal tender, he received a valid boarding pass with seat assignment, the boarding passed was scanned and validated by the gate attendant, he went down the walkway and down the aisle to his seat. He had rented that seat! It is very late in the process to say he can’t rent the seat after all.
The endowment effect in behavioral economics tells us that once someone possesses something they are far less willing to give it up. If the airline had told him he would have to give up his plane seat while he was waiting at the gate, he would likely not have had the same visceral reaction of ownership and of refusing to give it up.
Persnickety lawyers will say the fine print gave the airline the right to evict under either circumstance, but what is legal and what is ethical here differ. Moral sentiments say the airline erred badly.