The United Airlines debacle isn’t about customer service. It’s about the morality of capitalism.

In this Sept. 8, 2015, file photo, a United Airlines passenger plane lands at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J. Twitter users are poking fun at United's tactics in having a man removed from an overbooked Chicago to Louisville flight on April 9, 2017. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)In this Sept. 8, 2015, file photo, a United Airlines passenger plane lands at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)  

Here is why United Airlines kicking off and countenancing the assault of a paying customer is a big deal: It helps to reveal how corporate America often puts rules before people and how capitalism often places profits before human dignity. (I am speaking not only as a Jesuit priest but as a graduate of the Wharton School of Business, someone who considers himself a capitalist and a veteran of several years in corporate America.)

Overbooking is a device that most airlines use to maximize their profits. Unfilled seats mean lost revenue. This means that some people will inevitably be bumped from flights. But in the airline’s economic calculus, this is deemed an acceptable trade-off. A customer’s inconvenience is subordinate to profits.

You can already see the inherent problem.

The man had purchased a ticket from United, so, as a consumer, he was justified in expecting that he would be able to use it. That is the essence of capitalism: a fair exchange of money for goods or services. But the airline decided they had “overbooked” when some airline employees needed last-minute seats on the flight, so they asked passengers (who had already paid) if they would be willing to relinquish their seats. They offered increasing levels of money to make it more palatable. Several took the offer.

No matter what the fine print said, the man had a right to expect to fly that day.

Not surprisingly, one person did not want to leave. Why should he? He paid for his seat and was anxious to reach his destination. The airline had also entered into a contract with him. And the argument that the airline had the right to eject him is, to me, fallacious. It was not any sort of emergency. No matter what the fine print said, the man had a right to expect to fly that day.

Likewise, the argument that overbooking reduces the price of tickets, and therefore actually helps the consumer, is also something a dodge, because the goal of the corporation is not to reduce the price of tickets but to maximize profits for shareholders. One reduces ticket prices to increase volume, which raises revenue. Airlines are not charities.

When the man was unwilling to give up what he had paid for, he was forcibly removed from his seat by security officers, who ended up bloodying him and dragging him along the floor of the plane.

When we watch the video of the event something in us says, “That’s not right.” Pay attention to that feeling. It is our conscience speaking. That is what prompted the widespread outrage online—not simply the fact that people who have been bumped from flights share in the man’s frustration but the immorality of a system that leads to a degradation of human dignity. If corporate rules and the laws of capitalism lead to this, then they are unjust rules and laws. The ends show that the means are not justified.

A toxic cocktail of capitalism and corporate culture led to a man being dragged along the floor.

Someone in authority—pilots, stewards, ground crew—might have realized that this was an assault on a person’s dignity. But no one stopped it. Why not? Not because they are bad people: They too probably looked on in horror. But because they have been conditioned to follow the rules.

Those rules said: First, we may sometimes overbook because we want to maximize our profits. Second, we can eject someone because we have overbooked, or if we decide that we want those seats back, no matter what a person can reasonably expect, and no matter how much of an inconvenience this is. And third, and most tragically, human dignity will not get in the way of the rules. A toxic cocktail of capitalism and corporate culture led to a man being dragged along the floor.

That is why bland “nothing to see here” defenses of the ills of corporate America and of the dictates of capitalism bother this capitalist and former corporate employee so much. They fail to see the victims of the system.

Is this a “first-world problem”? Yes, of course. Most people in the developing world could not afford a ticket on that flight. But it is very much a “world problem” because the victims of a system that places profits before all else are everywhere. The same economic calculus that says profits are the most important metric in decision-making leads to victims being dragged along the floor of an airplane and eking out an existence on the floor of a hovel in the slums of Nairobi.

The privileging of profits over people leads to unjust wages, poor working conditions, the degradation of the environment and assaults on human dignity.

A day after the incident, Oscar Munoz, United’s chief executive, apologized for the treatment of the passenger, saying that “no one should ever be treated that way.”


He also said, tellingly, that employees “followed established procedures” and that he “emphatically” stood behind them.

What is the solution, then, to a system that gave rise to such treatment? To recognize that profits are not the sole measure of a good decision in the corporate world. To realize that human beings are more important than money, no matter how much a free-market economist might object. To act morally. And to respect human dignity.

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Thomas Lillis IV
3 years 6 months ago

I've noticed that many commenters has seen this as an attack on Capitalism. I've also noticed that some have taken to comparing/contrasting other economic systems while defending Capitalism. In both cases I'd say an understandable misinterpretation has been made. Here's why:

Capitalism wants to maximize return on investment which, in of itself, is a moral-free aspiration. But typically that’s not the whole story. “Return” is freely defined - some companies want to the “biggest”; some want to be the “best”. These non-monetary or value goals require moral agency. And as some have pointed out in Capitalism, strictly speaking, consumers have moral agency. If purchasers decide to shop elsewhere then company will develop something looking like a morality by proxy (i.e. be nice or they’ll lose a pile of dough). Other economic forms (i.e. all the others that have been tried) don’t allow for individual agency which is among the many reasons (here in the US at least) Capitalism very popular.

But the good Father has a point. We’ve sub-contracted a great deal of authority to for-profit entities. Those were public police that pulled Dr. Dao off the flight. Nobody stood up and told those police “this is wrong”. That, I think, is what has Fr. Martin concerned.

Mark V
3 years 6 months ago

The morality of capitalism?? I guess then that given the far greater and more numerous violence perpetuated under socialism, that you'd consider that economic system morally far worse than capitalism?

Thomas Severin
3 years 6 months ago

What upsets me most about this whole situation is that the doctor was treated like a criminal or terrorist when he posed absolutely no threat to the other passengers. The airline officials acted like jackbooted SS officers. I'm sure that they,like the Nazi concentration officers on trial at Nuremberg, would say that they were just following airline rules and doing their jobs, no matter how inhumane or disrespectful of the randomly chosen passenger.
When does common sense or simple human decency enter the picture here? If they were ordered to shoot the man, would they have done that too? Obviously, I don't believe that it would have gone that far but the one woman's reaction who yelled "What are you doing?" should have been enough to have the officials question their actions. Or were they to just follow the rules and ask questions later? This is where just "doing your job" or "following the rules" become frightening for people who are supposed to be intelligent and rational adults.

Mark V
3 years 6 months ago

Remember, the police were the ones that punched this man. The violence was committed by the State, not by private enterprise. Therefore the inference that capitalism is at fault is not substantiated.

Jennifer Baldwin
3 years 6 months ago

With all due respect to Fr. Martin, he failed to take the time to properly assess the situation before leaping to a conclusion. I am a flight attendant (not for United Airlines but for a different major US airline) so I have the insider perspective on this.

First, every passenger airline flight in the US does not begin until all cabin doors are closed, armed, and crosschecked. Any economy class passenger may be randomly selected to be involuntarily bumped at any point in time before door closure, according to the CoC they legally agreed to abide by when purchasing the ticket. Whether or not a passenger has boarded the aircraft is irrelevant to this. I myself have had to bump people off the flight.

Second, the flight was not overbooked. One unsold seat was still available, but United had to transport 5 flight crew from ORD to Louisville. As a flight attendant, I know that the only times that this happens occur when unforeseen delays largely beyond the airline's control (maintenance, safety, weather, air traffic, tarmac, cargo moving, availability of fuel, etc) cause a previously scheduled crew to get delayed enough that they will exceed federal duty time limit regulations if they operate the last leg of their trip. Numerous air accident investigations have conclusively shown that crew fatigue creates a very unsafe situation that endangers an entire aircraft. It would have been morally wrong to not bump people. In these situations, all airlines including United called for voluntary bumps and offered passenger incentives before randomly selecting mandatory bumps, but in this particular situation no one chose to be voluntarily bumped.

Third, the doctor broke federal law and committed a federal felony. He was told that he was mandatory bumped at random, so he initially exited the plane as instructed by the flight crew. But instead of following the proper protocol of speaking to the gate agent to arrange a high-priority rebooking given his situation as a doctor, he committed a federal felony by attempting to illegally reboard a plane to which he had no legal right to access; and in doing so he created an insecure, unsafe situation that compromised the entire flight. Then, he further interfered with the flight crew, which in our post-9/11 society is a criminal felony. As a result, the United Airlines crew working that particular flight was well within their rights to contact the ORD airport police regarding the situation.

The horrifying scene where the doctor is dragged off the plane by police is unacceptable, but that is the fault of the ORD police, and not the airline. Incidents of airport police using excessive force are unfortunately fairly common, and this incident could just as easily have happened at any airline that operates flights from ORD. I have worked flights out of ORD and I have seen numerous incidents of excessive force being exercised by this particular police force. This incident scares me because this is not meaningfully different from similar incidents that have happened at ORD at my airline, with the same police force. People are blaming United for this when they should be upset at the ORD police and the doctor who interfered with the flight crew, but this could just as easily have happened at my airline.

To summarize the situation:
1) the doctor was clearly in the wrong and committed at least two felonies which he should receive prosecution for but is being treated as a victim by people unfamiliar with airline operations instead,
2) the ORD police tasked with executing justice in the situation are the bad guys who used excessive force to subdue a person presenting a threat to the safe operation of the aircraft, but have succeeded in staying out of the spotlight and are not shouldering their end of the responsibility, and
3) United Airlines, who is getting all the blame for this incident, did nothing wrong in the situation. Every US airline would have followed the exact same procedure that United executed, given the situation.

JR Cosgrove
3 years 6 months ago

The doctor is already a convicted felon for getting a patient addicted to drugs and then getting sexual favors from his patient. After over 10 years suspension of his medical license has only been allowed limited practice in the last year.

rose-ellen caminer
3 years 6 months ago

He's a convicted felon? Well in that case the scum bag has no rights; beat him up ,hell kill him if he protests he has the same rights and equal protections as anyone else! Even someone the airline deems more important then him! [ sarc]

JR Cosgrove
3 years 6 months ago

I suggest you read the comment above from Jennifer Baldwin who said that the doctor had probably committed two felonies in the course of this flight boarding. My comment about him already being a felon was in response to that.

rose-ellen caminer
3 years 6 months ago

In forcing him off the plane to allow someone else on, his right of equal treatment under the law was violated. He became a second class citizen. A contract that violates his constitutional rights, is void. He understood this and so resisted. He was victimized by the airline, by the police and now re-victimized by your smearing him. Just like the police do when they re - victimize a casualty of their abuse, by telling us about the victims police record.

Douglas Fang
3 years 6 months ago

As it is mentioned by some bloggers here, this case has nothing to do with “overbooking”. The overbooking narrative is a blatant lie started by UA. This is pure greed and amoral behavior and this has everything to do with pure capitalism- the allocation of resources to maximize profits as long as it is legal.
Here is a very good analysis of a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University.

The problem here is that the video showing how Mr Dao was treated in such an inhuman manner does touch a nerve of the Asian community. Don’t ask the reason why.
Hey, Mr. Cosgrove – it is beyond contempt to continue to bring his past issue as an excuse for UA behavior. This is utterly despicable. It shows that you have no honesty in any debate on any issue. Don’t make yourself a laughing stock.

Also, if you want to thank me for this comment, you are certainly welcome. I hope these kind words will enlighten you somehow.

Stuart Meisenzahl
3 years 6 months ago

Mr Fang
Despite your assertions in earlier comments ther is absolutely no evidence of " corporate racial bias".
You have yet to point to a scintilla of evidence on that prior assertion .....and .the treatment you decry here as offensive to Asians would be just as humiliating and offensive whether the subject were Asian, White, Black, or whatever. There is nothing special about the problem just because it involved a man named Dao.

JR Cosgrove
3 years 6 months ago

Mr Fang,

Please refrain the ad hominem comments. If you disagree, ask questions.

The man in question, resisted the orders of the police so he was resisting arrest. How else was he supposed to be removed? He chose the outcome not the police. You may disagree with the policy of bumping passengers but the airline has the right to do so. 60 thousand passengers a year are involuntary bumped and why did this one make national news?

He is a man with several felony convictions, got a patient hooked on drugs who then became his sex slave due to addiction. He also has anger management issues. This man is not your ordinary citizen who was somehow victimized. He was disrupting a flight and was asked to leave. Again you may not agree that he should have been asked to leave but once he was and refused, the subsequent removal was involuntary but within the rights of the police.

Thomas Severin
3 years 6 months ago

Jennifer, do you really think that the average person, such as the doctor, boarding a plane has any semblance of the airline rules and regulations that you mention in your comment? Most people might be aware of the fact that airlines will offer passengers monetary incentives to willingly be bumped from a flight. I believe that this incident was a real wake up call to such passengers regarding the fact that airlines can legally bump them from a flight even after having paid for a ticket and being seated on a plane.
I have flown about five different times and never saw anything on my ticket or on other information provided for the flight indicating the prospect of being bumped against my will. The average person has far more other things to worry about than reading the fine print about something that is extremely unlikely to occur on any flight.
I doubt that the doctor or the majority of the other passengers on the flight were aware of any of the ramifications and rules that you mention in your comment, especially the various felony charges that you mention.
Finally, would you be so quick to fault the passenger for violating airline rules, if the person in this incident was your mother or father, sister or brother or child and they were treated in the same manner as the doctor? Would following the letter of the law be as compelling in this situation?

rose-ellen caminer
3 years 6 months ago

That this was about overbooking is a false narrative, much of the corporate media is perpetuating. This had nothing to do with over booking as the man was already seated. He was being forced to give up his seat for someone else, for someone deemed more important then he. This is a class issue. His right to equal protection under the law was violated. Had this bloodied man been Latino of Black, I think this would have been obvious to everyone in the US media. He could have been killed for disobeying an order , an order that violates his equal protection rights, much like Black people are at the hands of the police! Mr. Munoz, the United CEO, at first defended the actions of the airline, and still promotes this false narrative about "over booking"!

Joseph J Dunn
3 years 6 months ago

As the comments veer from dismantling capitalism to issues of race and class, I must recall that in more than forty years of air travel, mostly for business and some for vacation, I have seen literally dozens of seating issues resolved by flight attendants and/or passengers, peacefully, often with ‘class’ (the good kind) and occasionally with humor. Passengers exchanged seats to let families with young kids sit together, gave up a seat on a full flight to let a late-arrival fly home for an emergency, and one man who traded his seat in first class with a uniformed serviceman from the rear of the plane—this during the first Gulf War. Air travel is not what it used to be, and airlines could do better, but let’s not forget what kindness can accomplish. Happy Easter.

G McNamara
3 years 6 months ago

So, in this supposed "capitalist" system the government regulates all the parameters. The DOT sets the cap on compensation. Obviously none of the passengers thought the compensation fit what they believe would benefit them. Government set the financial compensation and allows, after their non free market cap is hit, to let the airline use law enforcement to kick person off plane. The basic concept of capitalism is parties entering a contract voluntarily that benefits their self interest. If price controls represent capitalism then Venezuela is capitalist heaven! 🤣🤣 The parameters of this transaction may be the law but it certainly is not capitalism. Happy Easter everyone!

Barry Ellington
3 years 6 months ago

With respect to Fr. Martin, this article doesn't make the argument it purports to make. United's reprehensible actions here stem from a contract of carriage which, the author notes, violates "the essence of capitalism: a fair exchange of money for goods or services." United offered an unfair, practically deceptive (immoral) contract, then cited a specious "emergency" to escape delivering the service its customer reasonably expected. Will this event help prompt reform of FAA's regulatory capture by the airline cartel, enactment of modern, equitable regulations and creation of a better market? If it doesn't, the problem isn't market capitalism (nor Fr. Martin's strawman); it's corporate cartels and the distorted (immoral) regulatory environment they've bought for themselves.

Bill Roos
3 years 6 months ago

A man starts attending various masses at the local Catholic church. At the beginning of each mass he walks down the center aisle, stands in front of the altar, and begins to dance and sing joyously, praising the Lord. This continues throughout the entire mass. As this continues over several months, parishioners have told the pastor that they cannot hear or concentrate on the readings, the gospels, or the sermons because of the new parishioner's loud singing. Attendance at all masses at this church is declining noticeably.

Several ushers, a psychologist and the pastor have approached the man and requested in a very respectful manner that he worship in a way that would not interfere with other parishioners' ability to participate in the liturgy. He continues to praise the Lord in his own way.

What, if anything, should the pastor do about the new parishioner? Discuss.

Elizabeth Stevens
3 years 6 months ago

I was hoping you might acknowledge some of the information that hasn't hit the headlines, like this:, for example. The passenger in question chose to make an issue that needed police involvement, at least according to other versions of the story. Of course it is about money, but airlines aren't the only business that sets rules that are sometimes hard to follow.

Thomas Farrelly
3 years 6 months ago

Father Martin, I find this argument to be utterly far fetched and silly.
Is there some system that guarantees perfect behavior by everyone? What is it? Was it capitalism that made the Jesuits own and sell slaves?

3 years 6 months ago

I'm not sure capitalism had anything to do with this. In fact, I'm sure that the capitalists involved are beside themselves with the ignorance and stupidity of their employees that is going to cost them plenty of that precious "capital".

United is trying to expand into China. Publicly roughing up an Asian doctor in a dispute over his seat was incredibly stupid, even if it had been justified. Unfortunately for United, it wasn't justified or justifiable.

The thoughtless actions of the airline's employees and the airport security personnel involved are going to cost the airline and the city of Chicago a lot of capital, and you can be sure there are a lot of people at the airline and in city government who are taking the lord's name in vain over this incident. A few hundred dollars was all that would have made the difference between a very happy customer and a multi million dollar publicity disaster. That's stupidity, not capitalism.

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