By now, we’ve all seen the disturbing video from April 9 of a distressed passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight to make room for staff who needed to travel. Here’s a look at why airlines regularly overbook, and how the practice may improve in light of this PR disaster.
Why airlines overbook
Virtually all airlines, both domestic and international, overbook as standard operating procedure, and the practice is not illegal. The primary reason for doing so is no-show passengers. Some passengers may show up to the airport too late, others might cancel their tickets last minute, and some may miss their connection due to flight delays.
They know that some people usually don’t make the flight, so rather than lose out on the added revenue from selling expensive last-minute tickets, they overbook, and hope there will be enough seats for everyone.
Actually, they do more than just hope. Airlines have incredibly complex models to determine passenger ratios, and most of the time everyone flies. But sometimes, more passengers have checked in than the plane has seats.
What happens when someone gets bumped?
When an airline has more passengers than seats, they need to reschedule one or more people on another flight. Passengers are typically bumped from a flight in one of two ways: voluntarily or involuntarily.
When airlines have to remove passengers, they will start by asking for volunteers to forego the flight in exchange for some compensation, typically in the form of money, a hotel room and a seat on the next available flight. Some companies even offer free return tickets to a destination of the customer’s choosing.
Tip: It’s a negotiation process, so if you’re ever faced with being bumped, ask for a free upgrade or other perk, in addition to whatever else they’re offering.
If no one volunteers to give up their seat, then the airline is faced with the uncomfortable task of removing paying customers “involuntarily.”
Airlines all have procedures they use for determining who gets bumped. Some airlines bump the people who don’t have seat assignments, others decide based on who checked in last, customer ticket status and booking class. The company can also select people at random using a computer program like United Airlines reportedly did.
It doesn’t seem right, but every airline has a clause in their contract of carriage allowing them to do this. One statistic in their favor is that the number of passengers being involuntarily denied boarding was at a 20-year low in 2016. Out of roughly 660 million flyers last year, only 40,000 passengers were involuntarily denied boarding, which is roughly 0.6 involuntary denied boardings per 10,000 seats.
United vows to “do better”
Following an investigation over the forcible removal of passenger David Dao, United announced it is cutting back on overbooking and has bumped its cap for denied-boarding compensation to $10,000, according to BusinessTravelNews.com.
This is part of a series of “concrete and meaningful actions that will avoid putting our customers, employees and partners into impossible situations,” United said. The report from United’s investigation detailed the failures that contributed to the widely publicized incident. Among those factors were offering insufficient compensation and rebooking crews at the last minute.
By June, United plans to have a “customer solutions team” in place that can identify alternative travel means for passengers and crews when needed, including flights from nearby airports and ground transportation options. Later this year, it will equip flight attendants and gate agents with an app through which they can provide passengers with mileage, flight credit or other forms of compensation.
United also announced an upcoming change in compensation for permanently lost bags. In June, it plans to begin a “no-questions-asked policy” in which customers are automatically paid $1,500 for a bag. Claims above that will require documentation.
United previously announced that crews that need to fly elsewhere to work must book at least an hour in advance and that United will ask law enforcement to remove passengers only in matters of safety and security.
In early May, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz was called before a hearing of the House Transportation committee where he stated, “We had a horrible failure three weeks ago. It is not who we are. We will do better.”