The one economic point that I haven't seen: the whole issue also comes down to airlines' use of personalized tickets to price discriminate. (And most of the TSA's job is to enforce that price discrimination by making sure you are the name on the ticket.) If you could resell tickets, the problem would go away. Then the airline must sell only as many tickets as there are seats on the plane, as concerts do. If people aren't going to show, they put their tickets on ebay -- or another quick peer to peer ticket trade platform -- and someone else buys them. Including the airline, if it wants to send employees around. Standby disappears -- want to get on the plane? Bid for a ticket. We still get efficiently full planes -- fuller, even -- nobody ever gets bumped, and the auction for the last seat is going on constantly.
Yes, one of the hardest lessons in economics is that price discrimination can be efficient. Business class cross subsidizes leisure and pays for fixed costs. But the airlines could speculate in their own tickets as well, so its' not clear in a data mining race that scalpers would reap the price discrimination profits better than the airlines themselves.
Holman Jenkins adds, in a brilliant column,
While we’re at it, what’s wrong with Chicago airport security? Did not a single officer say, “I’m having no part of this. If United can’t deal with its overbooking mistakes in a civilized, non-cheapskate way, how is it my job to manhandle innocent customers?” This also smacks of our national malaise—police who need an armored personnel carrier before they’ll roll up and serve a warrant, who wait outside Columbine High until they’re sure the shooting has stopped.And do not the other passengers rebel at seeing such treatment? Well, maybe not the first time, but I suspect the next time they try to drag a customer off an overbooked plane, there will be a riot.
Update: More at the always excellent Marginal Revolution. One negative reaction, already on display at United -- the crush to get on the plane first will increase.
Getting on United vs. Southwest is a study in bad incentives. Southwest: you get a number. People peacefully line up when called, and quickly get on the plane. Southwest also gives free (bundled in the ticket price) bags, so people aren't hauling trunkolads of junk for the overheads. United: Board by groups, and now everyone with a credit card is in group 1. They charge for bags. Midway through the scramble for overhead space, the bins fill up, then people have to start swimming upstream with their huge bags to gate check. If ever there was a way to make an airplane board slower, having people swimming against traffic with huge bags is it. The result, you line up like it's the New Delhi airport (or Southwest, circa 1995) and 100 million dollars of United plane plus crew sits on the ground. I do it too (I'm a rational consumer!) Quite a few times I have had someone show up with a boarding pass with my seat number in it, and being there first makes a big difference. Another fully rational response -- you really want to be a high mileage customer. The love/hate relationship with United will get deeper.