This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Two weeks before her niece’s wedding, Esther Barnes negotiated a room rate with the Panda Bear Inn. She received a reservation confirmation number for a double room for two people for two nights. When Esther and her husband arrived at the Panda Bear Inn, much to their dismay, they were told that their room was not available because the Inn had overbooked and they would be put up in a different hotel only five miles away. They had been traveling most of the day and were very tired. Mrs. Barnes felt a little better when she was told that the Panda Bear Inn would pay for the room at the Lion’s Gate Inn. Driving another five miles didn’t seem too much of an inconvenience. However, when the front desk manager told her that the Panda Bear Inn would not host the Barnes’ for the two nights at Lion’s Gate, she became a little irritated. The manager further explained that Panda Bear Inn had openings for the second night and the Barnes’ would have to return to the Inn for the second night. Since Esther wanted to retain the room rate she had negotiated, she agreed and the Barnes’ left to stay at the Lion’s Gate for their first night in town. After checking in at the Lions’ Gate, they had to completely unpack and ready their clothes for the morning breakfast at her sister’s house. The next day, they had to leave the family function and return to the Lion’s Gate, repack their belongings, check out, and drive to the Panda Bear Inn. Once there, they again checked in, unpacked, and rushed to get ready for the late afternoon ceremony and the evening reception. The next morning Esther and her husband felt like they spent more of their time packing and unpacking than they did visiting and celebrating with their relatives. During their trip home, Esther told her husband that their experience reminded her of getting bumped off a flight by an airline—but, in this case, they were not compensated for their inconvenience. She also questioned the legality of overbooking. She quipped, “What good is a confirmation number, when there is no guarantee of a room?” Esther decided to write a letter to the corporate headquarters of the Panda Bear Inn hotel chain.
Do no–shows and late cancellations justify overbooking? Do the operational advantages of overbooking outweigh the inconvenience to guests? Were the Barnes’ treated properly? How would you feel if this happened to you? Consider an analogous situation. Imagine going to your hair stylist for a late Tuesday afternoon appointment. You expect to be there for two hours. You are very excited because that evening you are going to an important business function where you will meet many significant people in your field. However,
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when you arrive, you are told that Eva, your favorite hair stylist, is overbooked and the salon has arranged for you to have your hair done at the XYZ Salon, a half hour away. They explained to you that Tuesdays average three cancellations, so the salon always overbooks. On your Tuesday, however, there were no cancellations. Would you consider this acceptable behavior on the part of the salon?
Case Commentary: Utilitarianism
The act utilitarian point of view on the Barnes’s situation asks, “Was the greatest good achieved for the greatest number of people?” Possibly—the only ones inconvenienced were Mr. and Mrs. Barnes. The hotel owners certainly achieved their greatest good, at least in the short run. They made the most money possible by having sold all the rooms. However, allowing guests to think their rooms are guaranteed when they really are not, may have numerous harmful consequences for the hotel owners, both short term and long term. The corporation is using the guest to achieve the highest possible profit for that day, while paying less attention to the guest’s needs and comfort. What are the consequences if a hotel develops a reputation for consistently overbooking? What are the consequences if employees see overbooking as management’s inconsiderate treatment of guests? Employees often take their cue from their supervisors. The housekeeper might decide that the bathroom looks “clean enough” for guests. The bellperson might decide to charge a guest for calling a taxi. An act utilitarian considers all of the consequences of the action. There are also consequences to never overbooking: lost revenue for the hotel owners and empty rooms denied to travelers in need of lodging. For act utilitarianism, deciding the morality of action involves a balancing act: you weigh the total benefits against the total harms likely to result from a specific act. You are ethically obligated to undertake the action that results in the greatest net benefit for all concerned. In the case of overbooking, the many factors you must balance can make the calculation fairly complicated. If a hotel only overbooks by X percent of rooms, and the X percent overbooking rate very seldom results in any guest being “walked,” the net harm is relatively small. Since the benefits of a full hotel are many, act utilitarianism may find this level of overbooking ethically acceptable, because the benefits outweigh the harms. However, it is also a question of how injurious the harms are. If a guest denied a room because of overbooking is greatly harmed (forced to travel a great distance for alternative accommodations, or forced to accept inferior accommodations, etc.), then the weight may swing in the direction of making overbooking unethical. Another factor that would affect the balance (and, hence, the morality of overbooking) is how much overbooking is practiced. If, instead of X percent of rooms being overbooked, three times X percent are overbooked, and this higher rate means that guests are frequently denied the rooms they reserved, then the amount of harm increases significantly. Thus, act utilitarianism may condone a certain level of overbooking but not higher levels. It is all a matter of
Front Office 99 examining the amount of benefit and harm done, and choosing the course of action most likely to maximize the net benefit for all concerned. Rule utilitarianism applies the principle of “greatest good” to rules of conduct, not to individual acts. So the question is: can a rule allowing overbooking be morally justified? It is apparent that rules allowing frequent denial of reserved service would not produce “the greatest happiness for the greatest number,” and thus they would be considered unethical. But it is quite possible that “mild” forms of overbooking, those that result in very few denials of reserved service and/or in small inconveniences, would be judged ethically acceptable.
Case Commentary: Kant’s Categorical Imperative
Kant would view overbooking differently from the utilitarian perspective. He would be primarily concerned with the individual rights of the person denied what they were promised. If the hotel had overbooked because there had been a natural disaster in the area and they were trying to accommodate as many people as possible, Kant would maintain that this might be acceptable because of the motive behind the action. The overbooking was done out of a sense of duty to one’s fellow man; it, therefore, may be the right thing to do. However from a Kantian ethical perspective, it would be much harder to justify overbooking as a routine business practice ensuring higher daily profits. Consider the two formulations of Kant’s categorical imperative that we have studied. First, we should act in a way that whatever rule we follow, we could will this to be a universal rule. Since a reservation is a promise to deliver a service (room, airline flight, etc.), denial of that service is breaking a promise. As with all forms of promising, Kant would condemn breaking the promise because breaking promises destroys the very basis of making a promise in the first place. It is self–contradictory to make a promise and break that promise; hence it is irrational and immoral. Thus, the first formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative would condemn any overbooking that actually resulted in the denial of a promised service. The second form of the categorical imperative stipulates that one must not use people for his or her own purposes. On the face of it, the practice of overbooking appears to do just that. Guests are used to ensure higher profits for the corporations without regard for the humanity or autonomy of those guests. Essentially, the guest has been “used” because he or she was, in effect, lied to when the reservation was made. To illustrate this, consider the following situation. You arrive at your destination hotel after ten very long hours of traveling including a number of airplane changes, delays, bad weather, and lost luggage—only to find out that your room reservation was not honored. Imagine that you had guaranteed your late arrival and even called just a few hours earlier and were assured a room. Now imagine that you have to taxi to another location and you have the further inconvenience of informing the airline to deliver your lost luggage to this other destination. Would you feel used? Would you have been degraded from the status of a human being to that of a “thing” used for someone else’s convenience?
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There may be, however, another way that overbooking could be made compatible with Kantian ethics. If the guest or passenger is made aware, at the time the reservation is made, that a “reservation” does not actually guarantee a room or flight, only a very high likelihood of its availability, then no promise has been made. No deception would have occurred in the event of denial of “reserved” service. The guest or passenger would not have been “used” because he or she was aware in advance that there is at least a slight possibility of denial of service. He or she would then be able to rationally make a decision about what to do, and no deception or denial of humanity has occurred. These appear to be the only circumstances where Kant would find overbooking to be morally acceptable. This is an example of a practice where Kantian ethics is much stricter than utilitarian ethics, which may find overbooking ethically acceptable in a larger number of circumstances than would Kant.
Case Commentary: The Ethic of Justice
Justice ethics states that we should treat each other fairly and asks us to look at the situation from behind the veil of ignorance. Imagine that you do not know if you were to be the front desk manager (who earns a bonus based on profit and daily occupancy rates) or if you were to be the weary traveler who discovers that the “guaranteed” room reservation was, in fact, not guaranteed. If everyone involved in making the decision were both rational and interested in their own well being, many of the more permissive forms of overbooking would not be tolerated. A rational person would set up rules protecting the interests of the traveler, since he or she may end up being that traveler. Even if mild forms of overbooking were to be allowed, a justice ethic would place strong and effective restrictions on the practice. Compensatory justice would also dictate that the wronged guest must be compensated for the loss and inconvenience. Some suggest that a guest might expect a free night at a nearby hotel of the same or better quality, a free phone call to notify friends or family of the hotel change, and a free upgrade on a future visit. Is this enough compensation for the traveler? Is this fair to the traveler? What if the person never expects to be in the area again? What good would the future upgrade do? In considering what is fair, you must ask questions such as: what has the hotel lost and what has the guest lost? What is the compensation costing the hotel? What is the denial of a room costing the potential guest?
Case Commentary: Aristotle and the Ethics of Virtue
Virtue ethics would view the hotel as a human community and ask how well does the hotel contribute to the development of the character traits of its employees? The traits or virtues include honesty, integrity, tolerance, fairness, and cooperation. Overbooking raises concerns about how well a hotel fosters honesty, integrity, and fairness if it does not keep its word to its guests. Any enterprise that engages in overbooking needs to be sure that this practice is honest and open and it does not promote an ethic of deception or irresponsibility
Front Office 101 in its employees. Virtue ethics requires businesses to foster values that relate to the way it interacts with its community. A business has to display a solid ethical culture in order to be respected by its community.