Viral videos of a passenger being dragged from a United Express flight last weekend were a reminder for travelers that buying a ticket doesn’t mean you’ll have a seat when the flight takes off.
Dr. David Dao’s flight wasn’t oversold in the typical sense, when airlines sell more tickets than they have seats available, and his experience was extreme. Nonetheless, outrage over the incident has led to calls for airlines to back off when it comes to overbooking, or at least work harder to avoid forcing passengers off flights.
Dao, 69, was one of four passengers told to leave a flight from Chicago to Louisville, Ky., on Sunday to make room for airline employees. When Dao refused to give up his seat, the airline called Aviation Department officers, who dragged him from the plane. Dao sustained a concussion, broken nose and other injuries, according to his attorney, and widely shared videos of the incident put airlines’ policies around oversold flights and bumping passengers in the spotlight.
While some travelers are only now discovering the fine print they agree to when buying a ticket, too-full flights are nothing new. The industry says deliberate overbooking helps keep airfares low, while the ability to bump passengers helps airlines manage scheduling problems while keeping as many passengers happy as possible.
The extra scrutiny has already led to some changes — United said Friday it will start requiring airline employees traveling for work to book their seats at least an hour before departure, preventing situations like Dao’s flight, where passengers had to give up their seats to employees after boarding. But bumping likely isn’t going away anytime soon.
Airlines can legally bump passengers from a flight, and major U.S. carriers did so about 475,000 times last year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. That translates to one passenger bumped for about every 1,390 people who successfully boarded. But fewer than 1 in 10,000 passengers were involuntarily bumped; about 91.5 percent of people volunteered to take a later flight, typically receiving compensation such as credit toward future flights.
Many airlines will sell more tickets than they have seats on routes where they expect a few no-shows who make a last-minute switch or simply miss their flight. From the airline’s perspective, any seat empty when the plane takes off is a missed chance to sell a ticket — even if it means selling the same seat twice.
“Overbooking helps keep fares down because it provides a mechanism to make sure they get as much money from each flight as possible,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and founder of Atmosphere Research Group.
The practice may have become more noticeable in recent years as flights have grown fuller, leaving less room to maneuver when airlines need to shift passengers to later flights, Harteveldt said.
In Dao’s situation, United decided to put four crew members on an already full flight. Had the airline not given passengers’ seats to those crew members, additional flights out of Louisville, Ky., Dao’s destination, would have been delayed or canceled, United said. From the airline’s perspective, inconveniencing a handful of passengers in one city might make sense if it means keeping a planeload happy in another.
Passengers can also get bumped if problems like bad weather or equipment issues mean the airline needs to switch to a smaller airplane.
When a flight is overbooked, airlines must first try to get passengers to volunteer to take a later flight. Although it’s not required, most will sweeten the deal, often with vouchers for future travel.
If the airline can’t convince enough travelers to volunteer, it can select passengers to rebook on the next available flight. United, for instance, says it considers factors like fare class, frequent flyer status, itinerary and how far in advance passengers check in, and avoids bumping unaccompanied minors and people with disabilities.
Loyal first-class passengers are unlikely to get picked. The first-time customer with a bargain airfare likely has a higher risk, said Brian Sumers, airline business reporter at travel industry website Skift.
Some airlines are also more likely to bump travelers than others. Last year, passengers had the highest odds of getting bumped on small, regional carriers, according to a MileCards.com analysis of Transportation Department data. Airlines where passengers were least likely to get bumped, such as JetBlue, Frontier and Hawaiian, often serve leisure travelers who probably don’t want to change their plans at the last minute.
The Transportation Department requires airlines to give involuntarily bumped passengers a written statement outlining their rights and explaining how the airline chooses whom to bump, along with compensation based on the price of the ticket and the length of the delay.
Involuntarily bumped domestic passengers who arrive less than an hour late to their destination aren’t entitled to any payment. Those held up between one to two hours get twice the value of their fare, up to a maximum of $675, and for those delayed more than two hours, compensation doubles to four times their fare, at most $1,350.
Some have proposed raising those limits, last increased in 2011, to encourage airlines to work harder to find volunteers. U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Evanston, has said she will propose legislation to ban involuntary bumping altogether, instead requiring airlines to increase offered compensation until enough passengers willingly give up their seats.
Harteveldt called the idea “well-intentioned, but impractical.”
Airlines would always rather find a volunteer than force a passenger on a later flight. But they’re also working against a clock. When schedules are tight, spending too much time trying to recruit volunteers could mean a delayed flight.
If any changes do come out of the uproar over Dao, they’re more likely to be measures encouraging airlines to work harder to avoid bumping passengers against their will, rather than strict limits, Harteveldt said.
Industry group Airlines for America said it was “premature” to speculate since no specific bills had been introduced, but warned against “unnecessary regulatory actions.”
“I think the airline industry will do everything they can to avoid new regulations being imposed, but to achieve that, they’ll need to do a better job policing the situation themselves,” Harteveldt said.
In addition to requiring employees to provide more advance notice when booking seats, United said it will not ask law enforcement officers to remove passengers from flights unless it is a matter of safety and security, and plans to improve training programs “to ensure our employees are prepared and empowered to put our customers first.”
United said it will share results of a review of its policies around oversold flights, and actions it plans to take, by the end of the month.