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Was United Airlines in violation of Jewish ethics?

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Yuichi Yasuda FLICKR

The images of Dr. David Dao being forcibly dragged off a plane have been seen by millions and caused untold damage to United Airlines. Making matters worse, the airline forced a total of four passengers (three left without incident and are long forgotten) off the plane to give seats, not to other paying customers, but to United employees. It is hard to imagine a company doing more to harm itself even if it tried. With a picture worth a thousand words, it matters little what led to the confrontation, or even if it is true the passenger was verbally and physically abusive and force was necessary.

Sadly, it was only after the pictures went viral that United “apologized.” It is unlikely in the extreme they would have done so otherwise. What is likely is that legal changes will be forced upon airlines regarding their policy of overselling seats. As all air travellers know, airlines typically sell more tickets than seats, relying on the fact that there will be some no-shows. They claim that this allows them to generate greater revenue and thus lower ticket prices.

I leave it to others to determine whether this practice benefits consumers (beyond those who try to get bumped so they can fly for free and make a few extra dollars). What is of interest to me is whether Jewish law would allow this common, but not universal, practice (For example, WestJet claims it does not overbook).

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Prima facie, this would seem to be a clear violation of the biblical law of hin tzedek (using honest weights and measures). Using a play on words of “hin” (a liquid measure) and “hen” (meaning “yes”), our sages declared that “your ‘yes’ should be a ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ should be a ‘no.’”

Selling something with the knowledge that you may not provide the service would be a violation of this dictum – your “yes” has become a “no.” The airlines will argue that if you read the fine print it is clear that they have the right to deny you a seat. That may be true, but it is the fine print that is the problem. Making your “yes” a “yes” carries with it the obligation of clarity and forthrightness. Even as passengers are vaguely aware of such a clause, the conditions by which it is invoked are never spelled out. How many extra seats are sold? What is the percentage of no-shows? What is the compensation offered for passengers who are bumped? This puts the airlines in violation of basic Jewish ethics.

It seems to me that if airlines want to continue the practice of overbooking – something that would be tolerated in no other business – they would need to be much more transparent with their customers. Perhaps something along the following lines, posted clearly in big letters on all tickets, company websites and read by those taking reservations over the phone, would fall within acceptable guidelines: “In the unlikely event that you are denied a seat for which you have paid, we agree to compensate you 150 per cent of the ticket price and guarantee to get you to your destination on the next available flight, no later than 24 hours after scheduled. If we do not meet this guarantee, we will pay you an additional $1,000.”

The saintly Chofetz Chaim was asked what lessons can be learned from contemporary inventions. He replied, trains teach that if you come one minute late, you may have to wait a long time, while we learn from the telephone that what one says over here can be heard over there. I’m not quite sure what he would say regarding the airplane, but I imagine he might say the smartphone demonstrates the teaching of our sages that above us is “a watching eye, a hearing ear and all our deeds are written in a book.”

Comments to rabbijay@torahinmotion.org