The Unfriendly Skies — Clueless United Doesn’t Even Know What Most People Think The Word “Dishonest” Means

By David Grace (

In one of my favorite movies, The Producers, two unscrupulous Broadway producers concoct a scheme to simultaneously sell large ownership percentages in a play to dozens of different people, believing their fraud will never be discovered because the play will be a flop and therefore there will be no profits that they’ll ever have to account for.

When the play is a hit and they’re facing the potential wrath of numerous investors, each demanding their oversold share of the profits, Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom decide that the only way out is to blow up the theater.

Well, in my view Bialystock and Bloom have nothing on United Airlines.

In the normal world, an honest and ethical company offers a product for sale and someone buys it.

That’s it. “We’ll sell you this.” “I’ll buy it.” I pay for it. They deliver it. End of story.

But that’s not the way United Airlines does business.

No, United’s business model, like Bialystock’s and Bloom’s, is to sell the same product twice to two different people and then hope they get lucky and don’t get caught.

United’s admitted business plan is to sell several seats on the same place twice and then hope that enough people cancel or miss the flight that no one finds out what they did.

Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad if United refunded your money if you missed your flight, but they don’t. If you get sick or stuck in traffic or have a family emergency, United doesn’t tell you:

“Gee, Dave, we’re so sorry that you missed your flight, but good news. We sold your seat to somebody else for more money than you paid so we’ll refund your ticket price.”

That would be the honest thing to do, wouldn’t it? I mean if you buy a blender and you promptly take the unopened box back to Walmart they’ll give you all your money back and they’ll sell it to someone else.

If you returned the blender to Walmart and they said, “Thanks. We’ve got another buyer for this, but as part of our new business model we’re keeping all your money so that we can get paid for it twice,” you’d be pretty upset, wouldn’t you?

In fact, the words “dishonest”, “unethical”, and “rip-off” might be heard coming out of your mouth.

But Walmart wouldn’t do that. No honest company would.

Unfortunately, that common definition of “honest” doesn’t seem to be in United’s dictionary.

In United’s alternate reality it’s “honest” for a company to secretly sell something twice and then keep all the money from both buyers and hope they don’t get caught. CHA-CHING!

By the way, if instead of not showing up for your flight and United keeping all your money, you get sick or have a family emergency and you cancel your flight several days or even weeks in advance, United will still charge you a $200 cancellation fee, then they’ll re-sell your seat to someone else, AND they’ll keep both your $200 cancellation fee AND the money they got for your seat from the other guy.

This isn’t just how United occasionally happens to do business. This us deliberate. This is planned. As part of their business model they count on selling some seats twice and keeping both payments.

United’s so clueless that many people think this is wrong that it isn’t even a secret. They admit it. Apparently they’re proud of it. “See what clever business people we are” they seem to be saying.

It never occurs to them that most people think that deliberately selling the same thing twice to two different people with the intention of keeping the money from both of them is dishonest.

It’s not that they have to do business this way. They could stop selling tickets when a plane is fully booked, then if some people don’t show up they could sell those seats to standby passengers.

If a standby passenger didn’t buy the empty seat from the guy who missed the plane, no problem because United would just keep all the money the no-show passenger paid and they’d still be paid in full.

If a seat was available because the passenger cancelled his reservation in advance then they’d have his $200 cancellation fee plus the money from the standby passenger.

In the unlikely event that they couldn’t resell his seat between the time he cancelled his reservation and the day of the flight AND they couldn’t sell the seat to a standby passenger then having an overbooking policy wouldn’t help them because no one was willing to buy that empty seat anyway.

No matter which way you look at it, having an overbooking policy or not having an overbooking policy wouldn’t make any difference in whether or not they lost money when a passenger cancelled a reservation in advance.

That’s why they charge a $200 cancellation fee.

So, here’s the thing. They don’t have an overbooking policy primarily to avoid losing money from no-shows or cancelled reservations. They have it so that they can make extra money by selling the same seat at full price twice.

In my head I replay an imagined conversation with United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz:

“Mr. Munoz,” I imagine myself saying, “is it part of United’s business model to simultaneously sell the same seat to two different travelers in the hope that one of them won’t show up and that you’ll then get to keep the money from both of them?”

“Yes, it’s called over-booking, and it’s an important source of United’s revenue.”

“Isn’t it unethical for a business to simultaneously sell the same item to two different customers with the intention of keeping the money from both of them?”

“Unethical? I don’t understand.”

“Well, if I sell my ticket to a Giants’ game to two people and keep the money from both of them, wouldn’t that be wrong?”

“Do both of them show up at the game?”

“Let’s say that one of them got the flu and couldn’t make it.”

“Then he’d never find out that you had sold the ticket twice, right?”

“Let’s say he wouldn’t.”

“Well if no one knows you double-sold your ticket then there’s nothing wrong with it.”

“But isn’t what I did unethical, dishonest?”

“Only if you get caught. Nothing you do is ever wrong unless you get caught. And even if both buyers do show up, you can just give a refund to the one who paid you the least amount and pocket the difference. No harm. No foul. It’s a great business model.”

“But can’t a business model itself be dishonest?”

“Dishonest? What does that mean?”

I can’t help but remember a scene from Seinfeld. George’s boss, Mr. Lippman, calls George into his office.

“George,” Mr. Lippman begins, “it’s come to my attention that you had sex with the cleaning lady on your desk. Is that true?”

“Was that wrong?” George asks. “Let tell you, I’ve worked at a lot of companies, and if anyone had ever told me that having sex on my desk with the cleaning lady was frowned upon I never would have done it.”

“George, you’re fired.”

I feel like I want to be Mr. Lippman to Mr. Munoz:

“Mr. Munoz, I’m told that United Airlines deliberately sells the same seat twice as part of a scheme to make extra profits by keeping the money from both passengers when one of them doesn’t show up.”

“Is that wrong?” I hear Mr. Munoz saying. “If anyone had told me that selling the same seat to two different people and then keeping the money from both of them was wrong, well, we wouldn’t have done it.”

“Yes, Mr. Munoz, it’s wrong. And you’re fired.”

As far as I’m concerned, if I have to fly someplace I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure that I’m NOT flying on United.

How bad have things gotten in American business when executives at a major company don’t even know what most people think the word “dishonest” means, and when you tell them, they just stare at you with a vacant look in their eyes and mumble, “Whaaaaat?”

– David Grace (

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David Grace

David Grace

Graduate of Stanford University & U.C. Berkeley Law School. Author of 16 novels and over 400 Medium columns on Economics, Politics, Law, Humor & Satire.

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