A United case for free markets and clearly defined rights

A lot has been written and said about United Airlines and their mishandling of a problem of overbooking. In case anyone missed the story, a United Airlines flight was overbooked. The airline also needed to fly crew members to the plane’s destination. The airline asked for volunteers to give up seats and even offered some money as an inducement, but that wasn’t enough. So the airline randomly selected passengers to remove involuntarily. Three agreed to leave the plane but one refused. The airline called airport police, who forcibly removed the passenger. Photos and videos of the passenger being dragged out of the plane caused worldwide criticism of the incident and airline. There are numerous memes floating on the internet now inspired by the event.

I am not going to criticize the airline or defend it. Others are doing that. However, I think the story provides an ideal case for illustrating two important economic principles: the superiority of free markets and the importance of clearly defined property rights.

First, economic systems determine how scarce resources are allocated. There are different ways of doing this. One involves free markets, where the exchange of money determines how resources are reallocated. Another involves various forms of command and control, where government or other entities dictate who does what and what goes where.

The airline had (some may say created) a problem of scarcity. There were more people who needed seats than there were seats available. A free market solution to the problem is simple: offer enough money to induce people to voluntarily give up their seat. Here is a thought experiment. Suppose United offered $10,000 to each person who gave up their seat. I suspect most passengers sitting on the plane would have volunteered. The airline said it offered compensation (the WSJ article linked above states that the airline offered up to $1,000). Clearly, the airline did not offer enough. In a free market environment, if the buyer values the resource more than the holder of the resource does, then an efficient exchange can occur if the buyer offers more than the seller’s value. If it was worth more than $1,000 a seat to United to get a crew member on the plane, then the airline should have offered more. If it was not worth more than $1,000, then the airline should not have pursued the matter further. That is the simplicity of the free market.

When there is command and control, such as when the government decides who flies and who doesn’t, then the government uses the power of the state to enforce its preferences, which we saw clearly here when the airline utilized police to drag an unwilling passenger off the plane. If the airline had utilized market principles, then there would have been no incident worth reporting. Stated differently, when markets function well (and when they are allowed to function well), then there is almost never a story to report. I find that interesting.

Second, when there is confusion about property rights, then there will be conflicts. People who buy plane tickets, either with a seat assignment or who are sitting in a seat, believe they have rights to the seat on the plane. In contrast, airlines not only can overbook but also can involuntarily deny boarding of passengers and even tell passengers they have to get off the plane, suggesting the airline believes it has rights to the seat on the plane. (Anyone interested can read United’s Contract of Carriage document here, especially rule 25, which describes what the airline’s obligations and rights are with respect to “denied boarding compensation”).

Regardless of whether passengers or airlines actually own rights, it is the beliefs they hold that matter most here. If passengers believe they have rights to the seat and if airlines believe they control those rights, then there will be a conflict when there is a problem of overbooking (that is, economic scarcity). Markets won’t work well here because there is no basis for determining who should pay and how much, since there is uncertainty about who initially owns the right to be transferred. If the airline believes it has the right, then it doesn’t need to offer any compensation. It can just drag unwilling passengers off the plane and place other passengers in the vacated seats.

The Nobel winning economist Ronald Coase described this problem and pointed to a solution: make clear who has rights to the seat. According to the Coase Theorem, bargaining is efficient when property rights are clearly defined and when bargaining is reasonably feasible. Airlines have demonstrated that bargaining for overbooked seats can work if they just offer enough compensation, suggesting they effectively acknowledge the beliefs of passengers that passengers hold rights to seats they have paid for, regardless of what their overbooking rules say.

The lesson here is therefore simple. If airlines are going to overbook their flights, then they should be prepared to pay passengers enough to induce volunteers to vacate their seats on the plane.