Dr. David Dao had barely gotten his glasses straightened and his shirt pulled down after being dragged off a United Airlines plane before members of Congress were rushing to “do something.”
Washington D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton called for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to hold hearings. Maryland Senator Chris Van Hollen quickly drafted a bill with the straw man name of the “Customers not Cargo Act.”
Twenty senators signed a letter sent to United CEO Oscar Munoz requesting answers to a series of questions about the airline’s policies.
In other words, the plight of Dr. Dao rapidly became a federal case.
What happened to the passenger was shameful. Yes, the airline may involuntarily bump a paid passenger to make room on the flight (the airline must arrange substitute transportation and pay the passenger with the appropriate rate depending upon several factors), but the technical defense does not hold up against the image of security hauling a screaming passenger off the plane.
However, not everything bad that happens requires a government solution, and even if some believe it does, there are no guarantees that new laws or rules will fix it without creating unintended consequences. The free market is far more efficient and effective at making these kinds of corrections.
Before the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, commercial flying was tightly governed by the federal government, which imposed strict controls on airline routes, fares and schedules. Back then, passengers got the royal treatment, but they paid dearly for it.
After deregulation, the airline industry was free to respond to passenger and market demands. The once-common amenities disappeared, but prices came down, while flights to popular destinations by competing airlines increased. A 2013 story in The Atlantic said airline fares have fallen by about 50 percent since 1978, and even after you include the recent uptick in fees, the per-mile cost of flying has also been chopped in half.”
One of the reasons prices have dropped is that airlines have figured out ways to try to make flights as full as possible so no seat is wasted. They overbook because typically a few passengers won’t show, but sometimes the overselling leads to bumping. So the ability to bump is linked to competitive ticket prices, affording more people the opportunity to fly.
The Atlantic reported that in 1965, only 20 percent of Americans had every flown in a commercial airplane. According to a 2016 survey for the industry trade organization Airlines for America, 89 percent of Americans say they have traveled by airline in their lifetime and 49 percent have been on a flight within the previous 12 months.
Those passengers rank affordability and flight schedules as their top two criteria when booking a flight. Customer service is fifth, followed by inflight amenities such as food, entertainment and WiFi.”
Airlines know this and they adjust accordingly to attract and retain passengers in order to achieve their primary goal, which is to remain profitable.
United has taken a damaging public relations hit. The airline is scrambling to correct the mistake and ensure that nothing like the incident with Dr. Dao happens again. Other airlines are watching closely and reviewing their own bumping procedures. The last thing they want is for a video of a passenger being mistreated to be viewed on the Internet and on TV millions of times.
It will get fixed because that’s bad for business, not because the federal government believes it can craft a solution.