A YEAR ago this week, David Dao went from being an unknown pulmonologist to a household name. Dr Dao had boarded a flight from Chicago to Louisville when the United Airlines crew announced that four passengers would have to leave to make room for additional staff. Three passengers accepted enticements to switch to a different flight, but Dr Dao, who said he had patients to see, refused to give up his seat. Eventually, he was dragged down the aisle by airport security, gaining a bloody face in the process and a national reputation as a consumer champion after videos and photos of the incident went viral. (One of the security officers, who was fired after the event, is suing the city's airport authority, claiming he hadn't been adequately trained.)  

The news was a public-relations disaster for United. A survey taken soon after found that people who were aware of the imbroglio were far likelier to choose a rival airline, and about half of them would prefer to fly with American Airlines even if that meant paying more or enduring an extra layover. United vowed to change in response to the incident and in fear of the business it was about to lose.

So a year later, what has changed? United did change its policy on bumping passengers, ending involuntary removals except in the cases of safety and increasing the maximum payments it would make in exchange for voluntarily leaving a flight. It followed up with a novel scheme to allow passengers on overbooked flights to accept payments and switch flights up to five days ahead of departure, taking some of the stress out of the process. Across America’s airlines, bumping declined sharply last year, to its lowest level in decades.

But passenger advocates say progress has been disappointingly limited. “We have seen much less improvement than we had hoped for,” Thomas Demetrio, the lawyer who represented Dr Dao, told the Washington Post. William McGee, an aviation adviser for Consumers Union, concurred, telling the paper, “Any changes that airlines made are, frankly, not very impressive.”

What went wrong? The answer is, well, you, the passenger. Flyers may have said in that survey that they’d avoid United, but they really kept choosing whichever airline offered the best price and itinerary. And often that was United. In the month that followed the Dao incident, United flew more passengers than a year earlier, posted its biggest gains in months in passenger-miles flown, and had its fewest cancellations in its history (and fewer than any of its main competitors). A month after the incident, United’s share price hit an all-time high.

In 2018, airlines are poised to keep cramming more seats onto their flights in order to push fares down, sometimes at the expense of passenger comfort. The reason for this is the same as the reason for United’s remarkable rebound. Despite what flyers may complain about—and passenger complaints in America did increase by 1.3% last year, despite the changes to curtail involuntary bumping—they’ll continue opting for the lowest fares. And airlines, after tweaking their policies to avoid the most horrendous forms of embarrassment, will continue to do all they can to provide them.