A Catholic Reflection on the United Airlines Overbooking Debacle

Clearly, the viral video of a paid customer being dragged off a United Airlines plane demonstrates moral and prudential failures.

(photo: Alan Wilson, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)


There are a number of moral and spiritual issues at work in the recent forced removal of a passenger from a United Airlines flight. While the majority of the condemnation falls on United Airlines, the actions of the passenger himself are not beyond reproach. I want to weigh in on this discussion because I do think that our faith, not just our sympathies or emotions, should influence how we see issues like this that go “viral.” Clearly, the video of a paid customer being dragged off a plane, demonstrates both moral and prudential failures. I would like to discuss three issues related to the event.



I would argue that the most important underlying issue is the common practice in the airline industry of overbooking flights. While I understand their financial need to fill flights, I don’t believe that lying to people to is a moral option.

Yes, overbooking is a form of lying. Selling a seat to a passenger that does not really exist or that belongs to someone else is a lie. When I purchase an airline ticket I am told that my seat is confirmed and I make plans (which are usually important) accordingly. There are times when the reservation does not specify the actual seat number, but even in that case I am told that I do have a seat on the flight. I purchase the ticket in good faith and the money is taken out of my account essentially immediately. I’ve been burned by the overbooking practice before and I suspect that many of you have as well.

I do not accept justifications such as these: that a certain percentage of people do not show up for any given flight, or that overbooking doesn’t usually cause problems. This does not change the fact that my “confirmed” reservation is not in fact confirmed and that someone else may actually get my seat if the airline so decides.

Neither is the moral math changed by policies that remunerate passengers who are inconvenienced. What is the value of a missed meeting or family wedding? I sometimes have hundreds of people planning to come to a talk I will give or to a wedding I will celebrate; and not every city has several flights going to it every day. So if the seat one purchased isn’t guaranteed, I’m not sure that a few hundred dollars or an airline voucher will necessarily take away all the frustration.

Some people reading this may wish to point to the fine print on the ticket or to documentation available online that addresses the possibilities of overbooking, but just because something is legal doesn’t make it right. Selling a seat to someone and confirming a booking should mean what it says. Anything else is a lie and no amount of legal jargon will make lying moral. It is wrong to lie.

I think we can all accept that a flight may sometimes be canceled due to inclement weather, a serious maintenance issue or some other unavoidable emergency. Life is filled with occurrences like these, but a lie is an unacceptable reason for people to be inconvenienced and it isn’t unavoidable. The airlines should stop selling seats they do not have. Lying is not an acceptable business practice.



The second issue has both moral and prudential implications: it is the physical removal of the passenger by force. This amounted to an act of physical aggression on him that was not required by the situation (as would be the case, for example, when the safety or serious needs of others required it).

The airline could have tried other things to reach its goal of four fewer passengers. They could have continued to increase the financial offer until someone agreed to deplane. They could have explained the problem further: that their attempts had generated only three volunteers so now an additional selection had to be made for the fourth. As a final “incentive,” the airline could have proposed canceling the entire flight in order to “shame” someone into volunteering. But to physically accost a man and literally drag him from the flight was imprudent, and United is paying dearly in the court of public opinion.

It is also wrong to physically endanger the passenger (and others) without a more serious reason requiring such an action. Bodily safety and integrity should be respected unless absolutely required by the situation.



A final issue is the behavior of the man himself. His persistent refusal to comply with the direction that he leave the plane was problematic even if that direction was rooted in unjust causes (as I think it was).

Airline personnel have a serious obligation to preserve both safety and order on planes. This has elevated importance due not only to the precarious nature of flight but also to the “close quarters” in airline cabins. At some point the common good demands that we comply with the instructions of those who have rightful authority over the situation.

The man in question defied the authority of not only the cabin crew, but also the police. While emotionally we may want to applaud his resistance to the injustice, his refusal ultimately delayed the flight for everyone and endangered others.

Injuries to others could easily have resulted from the physical struggle in the cabin. While I am glad to hear that in fact no one else was hurt, this was more a case of good fortune than that it was a likely outcome of the situation. Further, tempers could have flared throughout the cabin as a result, causing additional danger to others.

I do not necessarily accept the airline’s description of the man as belligerent. I doubt that he started off that way; he likely only became so at the very end of the incident, when he was physically accosted.  But the man should have complied well short of becoming belligerent when the airline insisted that he deplane.

There is a time and place to fight injustice, but it is not on a plane in close quarters. Ultimately we should not allow the authority of the cabin crew to be easily undermined. Good order and safety require compliance even if it times there are irritations and injustices, perceived or actual. After one is off the plane, the customer service desk, the public square and perhaps the courthouse are the places to demand justice.

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In the end, I think that the most egregious moral issue here is the way that airlines lie to and mislead us. People get angry when they are lied to. Injustices multiply quickly when wrongdoing is tolerated. I hope that the airlines will end their practice of lying or what they euphemistically call “overbooking.”

Meanwhile, we should remember that we must be prudent in dealing with injustice. There is a time for civil disobedience, but we must carefully consider whether that is the best response in any particular situation and be certain that we have tried other, lesser options if appropriate.

Safe skies and traveling mercies to all!