The free market and public shaming bring United around

SHARE The free market and public shaming bring United around
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Travelers check in on April 12 at the United Airlines Premier Access in Chicago.
| JOSHUA LOTT/AFP/Getty Images

Follow @csteditorialsAt United Airlines, it finally appears the price is right.

This week, United announced 10 policy changes — including boosting the compensation for passengers who agree to give up seats to a maximum of $10,000 in travel certificates. The airline did so to address the public shellacking it received after a paying passenger was forcibly removed from his seat on April 9 at O’Hare Airport. For many passengers, the price also will be right if they are offered certificates of greater value instead of a seat.

EDITORIAL

Follow @csteditorialsIt was the free market that set that price, not government in any form, a distinction important to stress. At least three taxpayer-funded entities — a congressional committee, the Chicago Department of Aviation and City Hall’s inspector general’s office — all have launched probes into United’s really bad day. But what humbled the airline was customer fury, public shaming and the very real fear of losing business.

When market pressures are doing the job, government should take a breath and be careful not to overreact.

For United, the price it paid in business terms was far too high. It was at risk of becoming an enterprise that appealed only to stand-up comics looking for material. The airline had to act.

The airline industry practice of bumping passengers from their flights has long left travelers grumbling. It took the video of Dr. David Dao being dragged from his seat and down the aisle to put the issue front and center. Especially galling was that Dao was hauled off the flight to help make room for four airline workers who showed up at the last minute, needing a ride to Louisville.

Who, contemplating an airline trip, didn’t shudder at the sight of Dao getting a concussion and a broken nose and having two of his teeth knocked out just for attempting to remain in a seat for which he had paid?

On Thursday, Dao and United reached an undisclosed settlement. But United is recognizing it also needs to settle up with its passengers. Delta, a rival airline, already had said it would pay up to $10,000 to bumped passengers. Besides matching that with its own offer, United said it would cut back on overbooking and would no longer remove seated passengers unless there is a safety or security issue. The airline also promised to develop more creative alternatives for passengers who aren’t allowed to board.

The aviation business is complicated. Airlines routinely overbook flights to fill seats that otherwise would be empty because some passengers missed their flight and will show up expecting to be accommodated on a later departure. Only time will tell if United’s new policies in fact create a more satisfying flying experience.

But if nothing else, United knows this: Putting the customer second — or last — is a bad business plan.

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