At Outside the Beltway, Chris "Signifying Nothing" Lawrence explains the problem the carrier had.
[W]hy would you bump paying people from a flight to transport airline employees? Well, most of the time they’re flying on standby, which means if there are more butts than seats, they’re the first people kicked off. However, for operational reasons, airlines need people in places to fly planes and serve as flight crew (they’re called “space positive.”). Normally people cycle through to where they need to be as part of their regular flight rotations, but if someone gets sick, there’s a long delay, or (as happened in Chicago this week) weather intervenes, people end up in the wrong places to work their flights and they need to be moved or replaced.And deadheading time counts against hours of service, thus the carrier takes an hour hit moving the crew by air, as opposed to a seven hour hit in a rental car or long-haul ride-share. But if weather intervenes, what has the crew dispatcher been doing, hiding in the tornado shelter?
Curtis Tate suggests a work-around.
Was it even necessary to kick passengers off the flight to accommodate four airline employees who needed transportation?There are probably informal agreements among crew dispatchers to keep track of such borrowing of space, in order that one carrier doesn't ask excessively many favors of the others. But that presupposes the crew dispatchers are keeping track of the disruptions in their routines, rather than, say, hiding in the tornado shelter.
The answer is no, passenger advocates say.
The airlines have agreements with one another to give discounts to employees of other carriers based on the distance flown. It’s a huge discount from usual fares.
For example, United could have sent its employees by taxi about an hour across Chicago from O’Hare airport to Midway airport and put them on a Southwest flight to Louisville, Kentucky, where they were needed Monday.
The top fare for the Southwest flight between Chicago and Louisville is $243, so under the airlines’ agreement, four United employees could have flown for slightly more than $100 combined with the discount. Southwest offers three nonstop flights from Midway to Louisville on Sundays. The trip takes about an hour.
Or the United employees could have taken one of four Sunday nonstop flights on American Airlines from O’Hare to Louisville. Undiscounted fares on the route are $221 in the main cabin and $321 in first class.
By contrast, United was offering each of the four passengers as much as $800 in compensation and a hotel room to give up their seats for the employees.
Southwest, United, Delta and American wouldn’t comment on whether they use other carriers for “deadheading” employees rather than bumping paying passengers off their own flights.
Finally, there's the term of art the carriers use, denied boarding compensation. That is, in the space lottery called overbooking that all passenger carriers engage in (as do institutions of higher learning, famous and obscure) sometimes the house loses. Then comes the ritual of finding people to deny boarding to. That's accomplished more easily at the gate, before people have, well, boarded the plane. It's probably the logic behind picking the last people to check in to be first ushered off the plane. That approach works a lot better if the check-in desk knows that the crew dispatcher wants four seats. Then once the people at the lobby and at the departure gate know there are n seats and n-4 passengers with seat assignments, the ritual of "we're so sorry, we're oversold" can begin well away from the plane itself.
The overbooking is a more serious problem in the skies than on the rails or in the classroom. Amtrak also overbook. (They have to. They use the same sort of load-management algorithms the airlines do. And the reservation systems are more valuable to the carriers than the rolling or flying stock.) But on the train, it's legal to sit on your suitcase or stand. In higher education, it's on the student to find courses, and if the first choices are closed, the advisors call it "getting out of your comfort zone."