Anybody who has ever tried self-help on a plumbing job, without any training or experience in plumbing, has learned the hard way that there are times when it just doesn't pay to cut corners. My landlord, for instance, thought he could do some plumbing repair on his own over at my place. At some point during the course of proceedings, something broke. So he had to turn off my water. Then he couldn't get a plumber over until the next day. So the whole venture ended up costing him the plumber's fees, plus whatever extra they may have charged for being in a hurry, plus supplies, plus whatever extra time it took to fix the problem that didn't previously exist, plus some compensation for my not having water at my place. The moral here is that in the quest to avoid invoking the costly remedy from the outset, you run a serious risk of having it cost you more than if you had done the right thing from the outset.
Now United Airlines is learning the same lesson. One suspects they lost sight of the fact that, by asking passengers to leave the plane once they had (a) paid for tickets, (b) boarded, and (c) plunked their butts into their assigned seats, they were breaching their contract with those passengers to get them where they needed to go, at the bargained-for times. They also seem to have lost sight of the fact that flying is already a dehumanizing experience, from the airport -- where people get herded and handled like cattle -- to the plane itself -- where quarters are cramped, drinks come in thimble-sized cans, and the food (if any) is barely distinguishable from the styrofoam-and-cellophane containers it comes in. We already hate flying and don't think too highly of airlines as it is. All of this requires the airlines to cough up something more than a token consolation prize for a breach of contract.
And, United, that's what you should have done in this case. Next time you find a need to kick paying passengers off an over-booked flight, offer better bribes. The better the bribe, the more hands will go up. If no hands go up, then it's too chintzy. However much you have to pay to settle up with people with whom you are breaching a contract, it can't be anything like what this latest P.R. imbroglio is costing you.
And while you're at it, do something to improve the overall quality of the flying experience, instead of making your passengers just embrace the suck.