United Airlines recently made news when they forcibly removed a seated passenger from a flight that had been overbooked. Here’s the thing about airlines. Let’s imagine that instead of flights, the airline sold dinner at a very nice restaurant.

Let’s imagine that you are going on a date that includes dinner and then you want to attend a traveling Broadway play performance of Hamilton, and the tickets were $200 dollars and really difficult to get. So, planning carefully, you call the restaurant to make your reservation. Oh. By the way, this is the only restaurant in town.

The booking agent for the airline, sorry I mean the restaurant, tells you. “There are two dining schedules, you can have the one that starts at 9 PM for $300.” (It is a very nice restaurant).

You say, “I need to make a play, so I need an earlier flight (as in meal).”

The agent says, “Well there is one that leaves at 6 PM that costs $800.”

You say, “That’s a huge difference.”

The agent says, “It’s a very popular time.”

You say, “Well, this is an important date, so what the heck. Give me the 6 PM meal for $800.”
She books your meal and sends you the information.

On the big night you pick up your date, and go to the restaurant. You check in with the host, and if this was an airline different things could happen next.

Scenario one:
You are brought to your table and seated. They bring you water, and you are about to order drinks. The night will be a success. And then the waitress comes and tells you that you have to leave.

You: “What do you mean I have to leave, I paid $900 for this meal because I have to be somewhere at a certain time.”

Waitress: “I’m sorry, but we’ve overbooked.”

You: “That’s not my problem. You already seated me.”

Waitress: “We can put you in the next dinner seating. You will still the same meal.”

You: “That was a cheaper meal, I paid more for this meal because I have a time schedule that can’t wait.”

Waitress: “I’m sorry. You have no choice. If you don’t leave you will be forcibly removed.”

You: “I want a refund.”

Waitress: “Ooh. We don’t do refunds. But we can credit you for another meal at another time.”

You: “I don’t want another meal, I want the one I paid for. This is when I need the meal. Not later.”

Waitress: “You don’t want to eat later? OK. Bye.”

And like that you have lost $800, or you can consider trying to repeat the experience with the airline (I mean restaurant) again in the future, but that will cost you another $100 re-booking fee. So, you apologize to your date, and you try to make it up to him or her by scheduling another dinner. You’ve already paid for it, even though now you regret it. You go back once more and the next time something different happens.

Scenario two:
You get more play tickets to a show, you make the arrangements for the 6 PM seating (You’ve more than paid for it). You show up on time, and you wait. You wait and you wait. You ask the host what is going on, ask if you will you even be able to make it to your show. The host doesn’t know what’s going on. It is getting close to being too late to make it to your play. Just when you think the night once more is lost you are seated.

They seat you at your table, and you wait some more. No one comes to your table. You don’t know what is going on. You stand up to leave and you are told that if you don’t return to your seat you will be arrested. So you sit, and you wait, and you wait. You have already missed half the play. And still you wait. Suddenly the cook comes out of the kitchen and tells you there will be no food, everyone has to leave. When you ask what’s going on you are told that you can call the booking agent to schedule a different flight.

Your date thinks you are incompetent and breaks up with you. That’s the end of the relationship. You are dumped. Now you don’t want to go to the dinner any more. You decide you just need to stay home for a while. Once more you call for a refund and you are told there are no refunds. You can either use the dinner you’ve paid for or lose the money. You have one year to decide.

That is what is wrong with airlines. A lot of business travelers pay extra money for an earlier flight because the later flight is useless. But the later flight costs less because no one wants to go on it. For a business traveler getting bumped off a flight is a loss of money, not just for the difference in the costs of the different flights, but because of the time sensitive nature of setting up meetings with lots of people in different cities. Being bumped off a flight could mean losing thousands of dollars. Real business travelers won’t even use the airlines, because their meetings are so sensitive. That why people have private flights or use something like Netjets.

I think we need to revisit what safeguards are in place for travelers. Some airlines are getting better. United just isn’t one of those, and they need to have decency forced upon them by law.