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Cathy O'Neil

United Airlines Exposes Our Twisted Idea of Dignity

Decent treatment should be a right of all humans, not just paying customers.
To each according to his wallet?

To each according to his wallet?

Photographer: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The outrage surrounding United Airlines’ brutal treatment of a customer has made one thing crystal clear: The story isn’t really about airline travel, overbooking policies or even consumer rights. It’s about the nature of dignity itself, and it doesn’t reflect well on the society it has so preoccupied.

The algorithm that decided to bump Dr. David Dao from an overbooked flight was trained to find the “lowest value customer” to inconvenience -- a coach passenger, naturally, not a business traveler, but also a passenger who had paid less than others and wasn’t a rewards member. In addition, the algorithm considered the immediate cost to the airline of bumping someone, which meant avoiding families, or requiring an overnight stay, to save reimbursement fees.