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11 April 2017

United Airlines has exposed the violent double standards of capitalism

Passengers can be forcibly dragged off planes because airlines know they'll keep coming back. 

By Julia Rampen

In July 2015, I was stuck in Miami airport with a bunch of other American Airlines passengers en route to Argentina. After waiting hours the previous night, we had been “deplaned” and left to make our way to an airport hotel with orders to return back first thing in the morning.

Then an announcement crackled over the intercom. The fault that had caused the delay wasn’t fixed, and they had no idea when it would be.

The Argentinian passengers – many of whom had already been delayed by a storm – were furious. So what did the staff do? Did they give reassurance, or arrange for a separate flight, or sweeten the mood with offers of compensation? No. They called the airport police.

If the staff of American carriers act like thugs in kerchiefs and jackets, it’s because they can. Shocking evidence of this emerged this week. Passengers on a United Airlines flight filmed the brutal removal of a middle-aged doctor, his nose streaming with blood after staff forcibly removed him from his seat. His crime? Objecting to being randomly chosen and told to get off the flight he had paid for to make room for United Airlines employees who needed to get to Louisville.

The footage filmed by outraged witnesses captures the man screaming as security officers pull him out of his seat and onto the floor, before dragging him along the aisle. A woman can be heard shouting: “Oh my God, look at what they’re doing to him.” Other witnesses reported the man said he couldn’t leave because he had patients to see to, and complained he had been singled out because he was Chinese.

The man was a victim of the practice of overbooking – where airlines deliberately sell more seats than they have room for in order to maximise profits. When everyone turns up, airlines usually try to bribe passengers to volunteer their seats by bribing them with money and a free hotel if it’s an evening flight. But if no one bites, the airline is prepared to forcibly eject passengers from the plane. In the United Airlines case, four passengers were asked to get off the plane to make room for airline staff.

The extent to which airlines see passengers as commodities and not customers is clear from the reaction of the United Airlines chief executive Oscar Munoz, who reacted by describing the incident as “upsetting” but accused the ejected passenger of being “disruptive and belligerent” (you might as well accuse London commuters of being “sweaty and invading personal space”). In the small print of every United Airline ticket is a line vindicating the airline’s right to kick paying passengers off the plane. 

Overbooking happens in the UK too – both EasyJet and British Airways are frequent culprits. (EU rules mean that airlines must compensate passengers by a specific amount and cover refreshments and accommodation.) Overbooking also occurs in hotel chains.

But if overbooking stems from a cool consideration of profit versus human flakiness – why sell something once when you can sell it twice? – this is capitalism with double standards. 

Capitalists are supposed to love competition, because it keeps companies on their toes and allows customers to vote with their feet. But when it comes to airlines, passengers often don’t have a choice. In the United States, the number of major carriers has shrunk from nine to four. At 40 out of the country’s 100 largest airlines, a single airline dominates the market. It is this kind of dominance that allows a company to think it is OK to insert its favoured employees, Soviet style, above paying customers and insist passengers have their plans ruined because its own co-ordination isn’t up to scratch.

In fact, the “market” so-called capitalists like to talk up is in fact a monopoly. If the medic who was dragged off the plane wanted to fly from Newark, where United Airlines controls 73 per cent of flight take-off and landing “slots”, the chances are he will have to pay the company that gave him a bloody nose again. 

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