Denied airline boarding is a lottery

Think a purchased airline ticket will entitle you a trip to your destination? You board the plane early or on time, does that mean you will be home for supper with your family? The recent online video of a passenger who was booted off an airplane is eye opening. In United Airlines Flight 3411 a passenger, a doctor named David Dao, was dragged off the plane. The video taken by fellow passengers shows a gruesome scene – forcible removal, loud scream, eye glasses askewed and a bloody face. Dao’s belly was visible while the security officers dragged Dao across the floor. Passengers can be heard saying, “my God, what are you doing? …. Look at what you do to him! … Oh My God!”

How often does this kind of violent removals of passenger happen? No often. In fact, the video became viral almost instantly. United Airlines is suffering in the stock market and in the sphere of public opinion, both domestically and abroad, even as far as China. Dao is ethnic Chinese. Many netizens in China wonder whether Dao was chosen to be ejected because of his ethnicity. There is a talk of boycott of United Airlines in China. We do not know how United Airlines determines the passengers for removal or denial of boarding. We will come to this point shortly.

Here’s another good question. How often are airline passengers removed from airplane or denied boarding airplane? Often enough. In fact, airlines have the legal right to remove passengers from the plane or deny a passenger from boarding the plane for any reason, including to vacate a seat to someone else. In the case of Dao, he was removed to make space for an airline crew member. Though the violent outcome shown in the video is extremely unusual, the mere fact that passengers are booted off the plane to make way for others is not unusual.

The airlines industry minimizes the involuntary removals by offering bribe in the forms of cash and free hotel stays. In United Flight 3411, the passengers were offered such incentives. Then the cash incentive was doubled due to the lack of response. Then eventually four passengers were randomly chosen to be removed. Dao was the only one of the four selected passengers who refused, citing that he had to go back home to treat patients.

Come to think of it, being denied boarding or being removed is like a lottery. The lottery ticket is the airline ticket that you purchased. The payout of the lottery is that you will reach your destination later than the scheduled date/time if at all. There is monetary payout for sure, from a few hundreds dollars to a thousand dollars possibly with hotel accommodation (only if you take the bribe). Such lottery is conducted all the time since it is perfectly legal for an airline to overbook. As a result, some “lucky” passengers will be kicked off the flight. If no one takes the bribe in the form of cash/hotel stay, then they select “winners” at random, another similarity with the usual lottery, though it is not known how random the selection is.

What are the “winning” odds in this lottery? According to Department of Transportation numbers, some 46,000 people were “involuntarily denied boarding” by major airlines in 2015. Out of how many “lottery” tickets sold? According to the statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), U.S. airlines and foreign airlines serving the United States carried an all-time high of 895.5 million systemwide in 2015. The odds are 46,000 to 895.5 million or 1 in 194,674, roughly 1 in 200,000.

The “winning” odds are pretty good in comparison with the usual lottery. In a generic lottery where the winning combination is 6 numbers chosen from 49 numbers, the odds for winning are 1 in 13,983,816, roughly 1 in 14 millions. A better comparison is with a smaller lottery. For example, the odds for winning Fantasy 5 in the California lottery are 1 in 575,757, with the odds almost three times longer than the “denied airline boarding” lottery.

California lottery’s SuperLotto Plus has winning odds of 1 in 41,416,353 (roughly 1 in 41 million). For Mega Million, the odds of winning the jackpot are 1 in 259 million. The United passenger David Dao left the plane with a bloodied face and spent times in the hospital in Chicago. It seems that Dao won the jackpot of the “denied airline boarding” lottery.

The incidence was widely reported in social media and in many online news outlets. Here’s a piece from No one wants to win this lottery. Here’s a piece, also from npr, on how not to get bumped and what to do in the event that you are bumped. Here’s a piece on the tone deaf response from United Airlines on the incidence, an indication that they are losing the PR battle.

The following is another video.