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EDITORIAL: A little bit of common sense would have prevented United Airlines fiasco

Back in 1994, Philip K. Howard penned “The Death of Common Sense,” in which he argued that the administrative state and the legal profession have exiled “human judgment,” undermined individual responsibility and transformed modern law from “useful tool to brainless tyrant.” More than two decades later, his title serves as an apt descriptor for the United Airlines debacle on Sunday.

There are no winners, here — although the doctor who became a YouTube sensation after being literally dragged off the plane will no doubt pocket a lucrative financial settlement.

Cramped seats, intrusive security and mounting fees have taken the luster off airline travel for many fliers. The viral video of law enforcement forcibly removing a paying customer from a flight tapped into the visceral frustration of many consumers and fed the narrative, fairly or not, of an industry intent on squeezing every dime out of passengers while scrimping on comfort and service.

It’s worth noting, however, that the practice of “overbooking” is common and even a valuable tool to help airlines manage seat inventories and avoid flights with too few passengers. It’s also extremely uncommon for customers who have purchased a ticket for a specific flight to be involuntarily “bumped.”

That said, the incident has already become a case study in the perils of poor decision making. Had a dollop of common sense been applied at any point during the chain of events, the whole fiasco could have been prevented.

First, while the passenger’s defiant reaction upon being told he had to give up his seat was understandable, he could have defused the situation by following the airline’s request, as three other fliers did before him. “If a crew member says you have to get off a plane,” the Wall Street Journal reported this week, “federal law says you have to comply.”

Second, what were the airport security personnel thinking when they pulled the passenger in question down the aisle in front of dozens of amateur filmmakers? Who could possibly conclude this was a reasonable way to solve the issue? Perhaps a more measured and less confrontational approach might have convinced the doctor to take the next flight.

Finally, there was no need at all for United to have triggered this ruckus in the first place. If there were no takers when the airline offered $1,000 vouchers to attract volunteers, then gate agents should have upped the ante until four fliers stepped forward to accept the offer. Problem solved. PR nightmare avoided.

The death of common sense, indeed.

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