Here is why United Airlines kicking off and countenancing the assault of a paying customer is a big deal: It helps to reveal how corporate America often puts rules before people and how capitalism often places profits before human dignity. (I am speaking not only as a Jesuit priest but as a graduate of the Wharton School of Business, someone who considers himself a capitalist and a veteran of several years in corporate America.)
Overbooking is a device that most airlines use to maximize their profits. Unfilled seats mean lost revenue. This means that some people will inevitably be bumped from flights. But in the airline’s economic calculus, this is deemed an acceptable trade-off. A customer’s inconvenience is subordinate to profits.
You can already see the inherent problem.
The man had purchased a ticket from United, so, as a consumer, he was justified in expecting that he would be able to use it. That is the essence of capitalism: a fair exchange of money for goods or services. But the airline decided they had “overbooked” when some airline employees needed last-minute seats on the flight, so they asked passengers (who had already paid) if they would be willing to relinquish their seats. They offered increasing levels of money to make it more palatable. Several took the offer.
No matter what the fine print said, the man had a right to expect to fly that day.
Not surprisingly, one person did not want to leave. Why should he? He paid for his seat and was anxious to reach his destination. The airline had also entered into a contract with him. And the argument that the airline had the right to eject him is, to me, fallacious. It was not any sort of emergency. No matter what the fine print said, the man had a right to expect to fly that day.
Likewise, the argument that overbooking reduces the price of tickets, and therefore actually helps the consumer, is also something a dodge, because the goal of the corporation is not to reduce the price of tickets but to maximize profits for shareholders. One reduces ticket prices to increase volume, which raises revenue. Airlines are not charities.
When the man was unwilling to give up what he had paid for, he was forcibly removed from his seat by security officers, who ended up bloodying him and dragging him along the floor of the plane.
When we watch the video of the event something in us says, “That’s not right.” Pay attention to that feeling. It is our conscience speaking. That is what prompted the widespread outrage online—not simply the fact that people who have been bumped from flights share in the man’s frustration but the immorality of a system that leads to a degradation of human dignity. If corporate rules and the laws of capitalism lead to this, then they are unjust rules and laws. The ends show that the means are not justified.
A toxic cocktail of capitalism and corporate culture led to a man being dragged along the floor.
Someone in authority—pilots, stewards, ground crew—might have realized that this was an assault on a person’s dignity. But no one stopped it. Why not? Not because they are bad people: They too probably looked on in horror. But because they have been conditioned to follow the rules.
Those rules said: First, we may sometimes overbook because we want to maximize our profits. Second, we can eject someone because we have overbooked, or if we decide that we want those seats back, no matter what a person can reasonably expect, and no matter how much of an inconvenience this is. And third, and most tragically, human dignity will not get in the way of the rules. A toxic cocktail of capitalism and corporate culture led to a man being dragged along the floor.
That is why bland “nothing to see here” defenses of the ills of corporate America and of the dictates of capitalism bother this capitalist and former corporate employee so much. They fail to see the victims of the system.
Is this a “first-world problem”? Yes, of course. Most people in the developing world could not afford a ticket on that flight. But it is very much a “world problem” because the victims of a system that places profits before all else are everywhere. The same economic calculus that says profits are the most important metric in decision-making leads to victims being dragged along the floor of an airplane and eking out an existence on the floor of a hovel in the slums of Nairobi.
The privileging of profits over people leads to unjust wages, poor working conditions, the degradation of the environment and assaults on human dignity.
A day after the incident, Oscar Munoz, United’s chief executive, apologized for the treatment of the passenger, saying that “no one should ever be treated that way.”
He also said, tellingly, that employees “followed established procedures” and that he “emphatically” stood behind them.
What is the solution, then, to a system that gave rise to such treatment? To recognize that profits are not the sole measure of a good decision in the corporate world. To realize that human beings are more important than money, no matter how much a free-market economist might object. To act morally. And to respect human dignity.