The one means of transport that has been historically volatile both in reality and metaphor is air travel. While trains have remained essentially middle-class, because of the dominance of commuters, and buses have remained largely working class, air travel has evolved from the exclusivity of its prewar silver service days to the low-cost, no-frills experience of the modern era. The result is a more extreme social stratification than even British trains, with the well-appointed limousine of first class a short walk, via the wannabes of business class, to the cattle truck of standard class. This makes the aeroplane a perfect microcosm of society and a theatrical focal point. It also makes it ideal as a site of jeopardy, hence the ever-popular mid-air disaster trope (snakes!, on a plane?) and our morbid fascination with actual crashes. Air travel remains statistically safe, not to mention fast and efficient, but we assume the experience must be stressful and dangerous, hence a passenger forcibly ejected by United Airlines can get away with claiming that the experience was "worse than the fall of Saigon".
Starting in the 1970s, planes also became one of the frontlines for deregulation, particularly in the UK and US, heralding the way for the emergence of new operators like Virgin Atlantic in the 1980s and then a variety of low-cost operators in the 1990s, particularly in Europe. A consequence of this was that air travel was increasingly presented as a laboratory experiment for economic theory, not only in respect of the wonders of competition but also in terms of consumer behaviour and rational choice. The emergence of no-frills flying was attributed to the revealed preference for low-price over comfort, over-booking was rationalised by the calculation that not every buyer will utilise their purchase, and compensation for flight-bumping assumed that a market will clear at the right price. The results of deregulation have been mixed. In reality, flying remains highly regulated, for obvious safety reasons, while the constraints on airports and routes mean that cartels and monopolies are the norm. Service quality, at least for standard class passengers, has steadily declined, while long-haul prices remain stubbornly high. Low-cost travel has been a plus in Europe, however it would be a wrong to claim that this arose from deregulation. The single market and the fall of the Berlin Wall were clearly decisive.
The decanting of Doctor Dao by United Airlines revealed two truths about capitalism. According to economic theory, having failed to get any further volunteers to disembark at the initial offer price of $800, UA should simply have steadily increased the price until someone stuck their hand up (and if more than one person did, drawn straws to pick the winner). In the event, the airline simply decided to enforce the standard terms of their contract (you have no right to fly) and their property rights (a refusal to leave on demand is trespass). UA's claim that Dao was "belligerent" suggests they were framing the problem in these terms from the off. Bumping is usually done on the terminal side of the gate, once the number of checked-in passengers is known, which makes it psychologically easier to handle for all parties. It appears UA caused the problem by deciding to board four of their own staff at the last moment (so the flight wasn't technically "oversold"), thereby claiming superior privilege. This would be like a hotelier kicking you out of your room because his mother-in-law had turned up unexpectedly.
This highlights the first truth about capitalism. Corporations don't instinctively think in terms of markets and trade-offs, they first and foremost think in terms of property rights. Much of the outrage in this case arises from a similar instinct in the public mind. We assume that a purchased ticket is a form of property, not simply because we don't read the contractual small print, but because we treat it as a token of value, like cash, rather than a permission that can be rescinded. That UA should have then misdirected Doctor Dao's luggage - his own property - is an irony apparently lost on the company's critics. The Dao case, even if it is settled out of court, is likely to be extensively written about as a contest of rights, but it is unlikely to lead to any change in industry practice or the law. This is because all parties see property rights as sacrosanct and they accept that "reasonable and proportionate" force (or resistance) is legitimate in defence of those rights. The questions arising concern whether the airline should have incurred a greater cost up-front in terms of passenger compensation and whether the force used was justified.
The second truth is that capitalism depends on the threat (and often routine execution) of violence, but this vignette of brutality is unlikely to prompt calls for anything other than a better capitalism, which is another way of saying a capitalism that is less overtly violent, not one that eschews violence altogether. Predictably, other airlines have trolled UA by implying that they would have acted more humanely, which is an admission that they consider humanity a service differentiator rather than a non-negotiable expectation. The implicit message to consumers is that they must choose wisely or face the possibility of inhumane treatment. The question of prejudice and stereotyping has been raised, i.e. was Dao picked on because he was Asian, though like the absurd parallel drawn with Rosa Parks, this appears to be nothing more than a deflection from the central issue of violence. The Doctor was in the wrong place at the wrong time, in UA's view, and that alone appears to have been considered justification for his rough handling.
What Ryanair's notorious extra charges highlighted was the passenger's dilemma: that a higher price is usually a poor deal because the gain is either small or unreliable. The best in-flight food is inferior to a mediocre restaurant, the in-flight entertainment is worse than your own smartphone, and even a first class bed is no better than an old railway couchette. In other words, capitalism is unable to deliver a better service in air travel so it is obliged to make a virtue of poor quality through an emphasis on low-cost. This development has happened in parallel with the imposition of tighter security post-9/11, with the result that air travel is increasingly viewed as an experience that must be endured rather than enjoyed. Given the many parallels with prison - the security check, the confined space, the lack of exercise - it is no wonder that it is becoming increasingly coercive in style, and no wonder that dissent is met by force. I predict a riot.