The problem here has a couple of aspects. First: the whole antiquated overbooking phenomenon. In what other venue can you buy a product, pay for it, and be denied it? If you buy a flat screen TV and walk it out to your car, Walmart can't come up to you and take it back because they also sold it to someone else. Maybe a better analogy is sports. People will buy a season ticket to see their favorite team and not go to the game. Either way, there's a finite number of seats that need to be sold for a certain date. If the buyer doesn't show up nobody else gets that seat. They don't sell the seat to two buyers and figure "we'll deal with it if they both show up". If you don't go, you forfeit your seat. Why isn't airplane seat the same? Why would they overbook in the first place? Today, they have computerized systems tracking demand for seats that tell them on a flight-by-flight, seat-by-seat basis what the demand is and adjusting the prices moment by moment. Sell the number of seats on the plane and then stop.
The other aspect is that in the name of airline safety we've made the airlines immune to prosecution for this sort of insanity. It's a violation of federal law to disobey the orders of the flight crew. And that's totally ignoring TSA, Air Marshals and the rest of the security kabuki. In the air, that has a certain sense to it. Airplanes have a restricted set of conditions they can fly in (their "envelope"), and someone has to be in command. If the pilot tells the passengers to do something, they'd generally better do it. On the ground, overbooking the flight and telling some passengers they have to get off the airplane or they'll be bodily subdued and taken off that airplane is seriously wrong.Yeah. "Three times is enemy action" is as much a statement about the presence of systemic failures as anything else. I have known people who work at the airlines, and no human organization is perfect, but various things I've heard and seen have led me to the position of taking any other carrier when possible. Not two weeks ago we had stupid petty decisions about leggings, and now this.
My biggest beef with them is not that they make mistakes - see my previous comment about "no organization is perfect" - it's that it's not the first time they've done something this monumentally stupid, and past experiences show an arrogance about it, as if their employees feel no need to make up for United's cock-ups, or make good on them for their clients.
A particularly hilarious example from a while back (that actually ended up on CNN) - and worth watching even if you hate country music:
There's also a followup though at 2 million views instead of the 16 million the above video had.