I am going to do something today I have never done in the history of this blog. That's right, I am going to speculate based upon nothing but my own imagination. For the first time in my blogging career I am going to write something that is not based on either brute facts or air-tight logic. What follows is my conception of what took place on the United flight from Chicago to Louisville the other day.
Okay, I lied. Try as I might I find it virtually impossible to write something without introducing some factual content to the discussion. So let me begin with a fact that everyone seems to be overlooking. The UA snafu was not the result of the dreaded practice of "overbooking." Every article I have read blames overbooking for what happened. In case you are the only person in the world who does not know what overbooking is, it is the practice of selling some airline seats twice in anticipation of no-shows. Airlines are loath to send a plane into the sky with empty seats so they double book some seats based upon how many passengers they expect will not show up. When less than the expected number of no-shows arrive at the gate the airline is forced to not allow some of the passengers to board the plane. It is significant to note that no airline I have every heard of allows double booked passengers to board the plane. They are aware that having two passengers fighting over the same seat is a bad idea. All overbooked seats are resolved at the gate prior to boarding.
I assume that airlines have done the calculations and determined that they can make more money by paying an overbooked passenger a premium to fly on a later flight than they can by never overbooking a flight. In some cases the airline is forced to actually pay for a hotel room for a passenger who is not able to take his scheduled flight. That happened to me once and I was put up in a nice room near the airport for the night. So let's assume that the practice of overbooking is the most profitable method the airline can use to serve the consumers in the most efficient fashion.
The UA flight may have been overbooked but that was not the problem. The problem was that the plane was full of paying passengers when the decision was made to deadhead four United employees to Louisville on the flight from Chicago. Deadheading employees is the practice of shuttling flight crews around the country in order for them to be able to fly other routes. Airlines fly their flight crews to other cities primarily for one reason, and this is where the speculation starts.
Government regulations prohibit airline employees, including flight crews, from flying more than a certain number of hours in a specific time period. As far as I am aware, deadheading does not count as flying time. When airlines experience unexpected problems such as weather delays and delays associated with closed airspace because career politicians are withing 1000 miles of some location they are forced to adjust their flight schedules. Because of the regulations associated with the amount of hours a flight crew can work it sometimes happens that a particular flight from a particular city has no qualified local flight crew to staff the flight. When that happens the airline has to deadhead a flight crew to that city in order for the flight not to be cancelled. I suspect that is what happened on the flight from Chicago to Louisville. If the flight crew, who were directly responsible for the need to force four passengers off the plane, had not arrived in Louisville on time the flight they were operating would have been cancelled and many more people would have been inconvenienced. So UA made the decision to inconvenience four passengers on the Chicago to Louisville flight rather than an entire plane full of passengers out of Louisville later that day.
If my speculation is correct, and I have no idea if it is, then the blame for what happened on the UA flight that day is squarely on the shoulders of the FAA. In the absence of stupid and overbearing regulations a profit seeking airline could pay its employees to work overtime in situations that require it. In a free market the conditions that resulted in the assault of a passenger by professional thugs would never have taken place. But, alas, we do not live in a free country. Expect more of the same.