United: Is There Really a Computer Random Passenger Selection?

Given that United Airlines has done such a wonderful job explaining itself regarding its deplorable actions on United Express Flight 3411, I thought maybe some fact checking is in order.

All the descriptions and timelines of what happened on that flight have one feature in common:

When no one volunteers, the United manager boards the plane and announces passengers would be chosen at random to vacate their seats.

Jade Kelley, a passenger who sat across the aisle from Dr. David Dao, the man who was dragged from the flight and bloodied, told The Resurgent:

Last night I boarded flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville. While waiting at the gate, the other passengers and I were informed that United Airlines had overbooked the flight and needed one volunteer to depart the aircraft. United offered a $400 voucher and a one night stay in a hotel. The voucher was increased to $800 but nobody came forward. We were warned that a computer would randomly select 4 passengers to disembark if nobody volunteered.

But is there really such a thing? Is there a computer program to randomly select passengers to disembark after the flight had been boarded? It seems like such a simple thing–any high school freshman can write a random number generator. Heck, I can get Siri to give me a random number by asking it to give me a random number between 1 and any integer. (Try it!)

So I consulted Quora, a question-and-answer site, and asked a simple question: “Is there really a random passenger selector for mandatory deplaning when an airline overbooks?” I figured someone who works for United would reply, simply, “Yes” and I’d be done with it.

But instead I got a different answer.

Nope. At least for American, Frontier, Allegiant, and Delta/United express the Gate agent decides who to bump off the flight. Usually, depending on the airline, it is determined based on the last passenger to check in for the flight.

So I asked United on Twitter.

Their excellent PR folks have not yet responded.

This fact matters. If there really is a random computer selection, then a gate agent can hide behind procedures, as United CEO Oscar Munoz indicated. There could be no other outcome because the computer selected Dr. Dao, who refused to comply with the computer-selected “you lose” order.

But if there isn’t a random computer selection, it’s a whole different story. That means the gate agent, who offered $400 (or $800 depending on the version of the story you read), saw that Dr. Dao first volunteered to give up his seat, then changed his mind when he couldn’t get back to Louisville in time to see his patients (his story). It means that the gate agent then decided to remove Dr. Dao and his wife, not some computer.

It means that possibly Dr. Dao was targeted for removal because the gate agent decided he was probably the easiest to persuade since he already volunteered once. Maybe he just needed a little more encouragement. When the carrot failed, the gate agent decided to go with the stick. When your job depends on following procedures and getting a flight crew to Louisville (versus making a customer happy), employees tend to go the extra mile for the company.

Dr. Dao took one for the United team, as it were.

So we can clear this up very quickly, if United chooses to respond. Is there a random computer program to remove passengers from overbooked flights–used by United Express out of O’Hare–or isn’t there?

I’ll wait for the answer.