The Ethics of Overbooking

Overbooking has been in the news recently due to an incident on an overbooked United Airlines flight late Sunday, in which a man and three other passengers were forced off the flight due to needing to make room for United Airlines employees. The man was dragged from the flight by Chicago Aviation police, causing the man to bleed from his mouth.

Further information can be found in the article “United Airlines Passenger Is Dragged From an Overbooked Flight”.

I wanted to gain more context on this and how it applies to IT ethics so I read “When Automation Makes Passengers Freight: United Airlines and Seat Assignments”, written in response to the incident. I found these two paragraphs to be particularly relevant:

What I observed today was seemingly a process designed for planes and freight, applied to people. If a company transports freight and needs to remove a package, a computerized lottery might be a great way to do it. If you are a computer engineer, or someone who believes in a particular type of “fairness,” removing people from a flight, based on a random assessment, becomes a clear choice — and an easier one to code, rather than connecting options to a broader system that can be interrupted by employees in extreme situations.

However, people are not freight. We take agency in different ways, we have different needs, and we fly for different reasons to different destinations. As we’ve seen, using a computer algorithm to insure “fairness” doesn’t always work with people. This is mostly because we are collective, social, cooperative, and human. This is also because algorithms at the moment, could care less about us as people.

I often hear that eliminating edge cases is something computer programmers should strive for. However, people are unique, and in algorithms which affect the lives of people, we should seek to find out as many of those edge cases as possible so that algorithms can handle them gracefully rather than brute, impersonal means.

There is a parallel of overbooking, a.k.a. overselling, in the software world - any “unlimited” hosting. A website that says they offer unlimited storage space can’t possibly fully deliver on that promise, since nothing is infinite of course - they are relying on people to only use a small percentage of the full capacity. However, what if someone really does want to use the whole capacity, thinking it is unlimited? That’s where issues develop - see “unlimited data” on cell phone plans. Usually there is some fine print saying that after a certain amount of data, the speed will drop to 2G, particularly if the network is saturated.

Overbooking and overselling are usually legal, seen frequently in industries with high cancellation rates. However, this post isn’t about the legality, it’s about if the practice is ethical. Through various reading, the generally accepted view is that it is ethical so long as the company can deliver on their promise to customers, meeting their needs. Where a grey area forms is at the point where the company can no longer keep their promise and the customer sees “unlimited” is not as it is perceived to be.

DISCUSS: What is your perspective on this practice? Where is the ethical line in the situation? Should the practice continue, even as our [technology] resource usage continues to grow?


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