(Lets imagine we sit in United's quality management committee. Here is the initial non-conformity report.)
Yesterday we had an unusual incident. A flight from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. Following SOP, we offered up to $800USD reward for volunteers to deplane. There were no takers. We had to select four customers at random to ask them to deplane. Three of them complied, one refused. We called airport police, who came and forcibly removed this customer, injuring him in the process.
The removal was filmed by other customers and we are in a storm of negative publicity on traditional and social media.
What a debacle! I can tell you one thing for certain: the answer is NOT to legislate airlines' booking practices (as some outraged people seem to advocating for at this point).
The answer to this point (prevent recurrence) is simple:
1. have scalable compensation for volunteering to give your seat up. If there are no takers at the $800, up it to $900. Still no takers? What about $1000. ...eventually you'll get people to deplane voluntarily.
2. Weigh the costs/benefits of their overbooking policies (factoring in costs of deplane incentives), and tweak policies if necessary.
As for containing damage & repairing image, the marketers have a real challenge in the short term. But in the long term, given the limited competition and short media cycles, I suspect that they'll rebound, and the incident forgotten.
We can only speculate, but I suspect there's something general in the terms of purchase that passengers agree to cede authority to crew. If they tell you to do something, you do it. You could argue this would be a completely justifiable term-of-agreement for safety reasons.
If this is the case, then it's really a simple matter that the customer was not complying with a request of the crew, and hence security gets involved, regardless of the circumstances of customer non-compliance.
I'm not agreeing with the way it was handled... but if you consider the sequence of events from (Terms-of-Service) -> (Overbook Decision) -> (Crew Request to Disembark) -> (Security Tasked with Dealing with Non-Compliant Passenger), and consider the lack of communication between the respective authorities for each, I can totally see how this could have occurred without jumping to a conclusion that United is simply terrible.
(I'm pretty bad at scrutinizing terms-of-service agreements, but I'll have to check next time I fly...)
It's a matter of contract law. All airlines have a well-established Contract of Carriage that each passenger knowingly (or usually unknowingly) agrees to when they book flights. Here's a link to United's Contract of Carriage. In Rule 25 under Denied Boarding Compensation is text that says passengers may be denied boarding involuntarily. Legally United was within their rights to deny the man boarding. Obviously it was handled poorly in this case. I personally haven't watched the videos yet, but my understanding is that Law Enforcement Officers were the ones who dragged the man off the plane. Still, UA ended up with a black eye.
I don't know if $800 is United's limit, but I've seen Delta go as high as $1300 to convince people to take a later flight. I have taken Voluntary Denied Boarding offers multiple times on both DL and UA when my schedule permitted.