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The unfriendly skies

A passenger was dragged out of a United Airlines plane due to the airline overbooking the flight, creating yet another PR nightmare for United Airlines.

Few business seem to be more under the thumb of bean counters than the major U.S. airlines: Seats and leg room shrink, baggage fees are imposed and rudimentary comforts like a bag of peanuts or a beverage are either nonexistent or get you charged. Cattle cars offer more comfort than the typical cross-country flight in economy class. Yet as much as flying the "friendly skies" already seems a thing of the past, never underestimate the the industry's ability to drag its customers around kicking and screaming — as that's more or less what happened on a recent United Airlines flight.

You've probably seen the viral video already: A Sunday night flight from Chicago to Louisville, Ky. was overbooked, and the airline had to free up seats on the already-boarded plane to make room for a deadheading flight crew. Volunteers were sought, vouchers of up to $1,000 were offered, plus a hotel room with the promise of a Monday afternoon flight. Not enough passengers accepted, and so the airline chose passengers to oust. One of those chosen, David Dao, a Kentucky physician, refused to leave.

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Eventually, police were summoned and forcefully removed him from the plane with Dr. Dao striking his head in the process, his face bloodied as he was dragged down the aisle to the horror of his fellow passengers. Various versions of the video have been viewed more than 2 million times on YouTube by last count. Twitter and Facebook postings have similarly exploded with this favorite meme — an illustration of the two classes on a United domestic flight, first class and "Fight Club," a reference to the brutal Brad Pitt movie.

To observe this is a bad public relations moment for United CEO Oscar Munoz is like suggesting the RMS Titanic was a setback for ocean travel in 1912. Yet Mr. Munoz, who was honored as a "communicator of the year" last month by PRWeek, seemed at first not to realize how big a disaster he was confronting. After issuing an initial statement calling the incident "upsetting" and apologizing for "having to re-accomodate these customers" while vowing a "detailed review," he then sent a letter to United employees Monday reassuring them that proper procedures had been followed and that the passenger had been "disruptive and belligerent."

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Wow, that investigation didn't take long. So much for even pretending you care about your passengers. Dr. Dao, who was convicted of drug offenses more than a decade ago but regained his medical license in 2015, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal, might have been ill-mannered, but that doesn't mean he should have been treated like a terrorist and beaten up so badly he had to be hospitalized. For starters, the airline might simply have offered a bigger bribe (as they were empowered to do based on ticket purchase price) then found a volunteer and the standoff might have been avoided altogether. And what a savings that would have been, as United Airlines stock plunged in value on Tuesday and Mr. Munoz was apologizing nearly a billion dollars more profusely in his third explanation — "no one should ever be mistreated this way," he wrote.

But here's the real problem. Airlines deliberately oversell flights to make sure there are few, if any, empty seats. Long ago, those bean counters figured out it was more profitable to overbook and deal with unhappy customers — people who paid for their seats but didn't get to fly — by offering vouchers, hotel rooms and other incentives for volunteers. Alas, that doesn't work every time. Records show there are tens of thousands of involuntary "bumps" from flights. The only extraordinary thing about the Chicago incident was that it took place after boarding, was captured on a cell phone video and, of course, sparked a violent removal by local aviation authorities.

That needs to be corrected. Either the airlines become empowered to offer bigger bribes or Congress needs to set stricter standards on involuntary removals from flights as a simple matter of consumer protection. It's particularly galling in this case that it was done to accommodate United's own employees. But that's just part of the airline's public relations problems.

Still, we won't hold onto our seat belts expecting reforms. Airlines like United seem pretty accustomed to public ridicule. Why? For for most fliers, it's all about the cost of a ticket and the convenience of the flight; carriers' indifference to customer service seems not to have had much impact on bottom lines. The fastest growing U.S. airlines like JetBlue, Spirit and Southwest are all about the discounts while legacy airlines like United have seen modest revenue growth in recent years. Until travel customers make their choices based on the quality of their experience and not just ticket prices, the unfriendly skies aren't likely to change all that much.

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