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Are airline bump lists really random?

I’m sure you’ve heard about the nightmare week United Airlines is having — at least, from a PR standpoint. It all began on Sunday with an overbooked flight leaving from Chicago. Four passengers who were already on the plane were asked to get off so four airline employees could take their seats.

This resulted in one of the passengers being dragged off by security without his consent. Video of the incident went viral and caused an uproar on social media. United Airlines claims the removed passengers were selected at random, but is that true?

Passengers being randomly selected is actually hard to believe. True randomness is very difficult to create. All computers run programs based on algorithms that were written by human beings. And that’s the key: Humans wrote the computer code.

When a flight is overbooked, airline bump-list software takes into account several factors:

  • When the customer bought the ticket
  • What time the passenger checked into the flight
  • How much the ticket cost
  • How often the traveler flies with the airline
  • Where the customer is seated

Does that sound random to you?

Computers don’t make random decisions. At the end of the day, who stayed and who got booted from the flight was decided by humans at the gate.

The incident on Sunday should’ve been handled better by United. For one, passengers should not have been allowed to board the plane before deciding to kick off people. If they would’ve followed that procedure, this might not have escalated to the firestorm we’re seeing now.

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