You’ve seen it, I’ve seen it. It’s horrible.

It’s true, airline companies can forcibly remove a legitimate paying customer off a flight and make them wait for the next available flight. Maybe the above video is an example of what you shouldn’t do unless you want to spark a PR disaster.

Let’s think of some basic, ‘reasonable’ solutions to avoid this in the future for both United and other airlines that utilizes this sales practice:

Stop overbooking – not likely
Unless there is a law put into effect, companies will continue to overbook and bump approximately 4% of all passengers onto a later flight (but be required to compensate them for the inconvenience).

Change their loading procedures – most likely
Don’t let customers get onto the plane if you’ve overbooked.
Figure out a solution before passengers get on. Get your best customer service rep to give the news to the people that need to be bumped.
Rent them a car and even a driver, or get the next flight available,  even if it is another carrier PLUS reimburse the customer as well.

Impose return restrictions – more likely
Depending on how early the customer cancels their booking, increases the chance of allowing the return. Basically if the customer cancel’s too late, the ticket may not be refunded.

150+ days before flight = 100% chance of cancellation
90 days before flight = 50% chance of cancellation
30 days before flight = 10% chance of cancellation

Give the company the opportunity to set thresholds of % chance to cancel, possibly based on the number of people that have already cancelled/spots on the plane. Maybe on a first-come, first cancelled/served situation: the first 20 people that cancel within X time-frame can return without issue.

A better solution in my mind
would be: all flight tickets can be cancelled/returned, but depending on how close it is to the actual flight, dictates how much is returned.

150+ days before flight = full refund
90 days before flight = 50-75% refund
30 days before flight = 25% refund
7 days before flight = 10%

This allows the carrier to ensure more flights are fully booked, and to still profit from most situations. The question is: how much from the price of a ticket is profit?

Sometimes, it just comes down to old-fashioned, good customer service and communicating correctly, as per the last part of this CNN article.