Airline Bumping: Good News and Bad News

(c)Mark D. Kahler

Almost a year ago, a Kentucky doctor was dragged down the aisle of a United commuter flight scheduled to depart Chicago O’Hare for Louisville. He had refused to surrender his seat during an involuntary bump, and the confrontation attracted international attention.

Airlines routinely bump booked passengers from flights when too many people show up at the gate with boarding passes. These oversold flights, we have been told, are a necessary evil because a struggling industry can’t afford empty seats.

Business travelers, for example, often purchase extremely expensive but fully refundable airline tickets. If these reservations are canceled just before the flight, filling the empty seats with another paying customer often is difficult.

Each airlines has a mathematical formula designed to oversell a flight just enough to compensate for last-minute no-shows. Note the word “designed.” It’s far from an exact science, which is why people are asked to volunteer to be bumped.

In the absense of volunteers, an involuntary bump occurs. That’s what happened in Chicago.

The scene last April was ugly. David Dao, the 69-year-old doctor who insisted he must return to his practice the next day, was the focus of smartphone cameras as he was forcibly dislodged from his booked seat, bleeding and shouting as passengers — some of whom were children — watched in horror.

The public relations firestorm that followed prompted United to make a media-documented promise to improve customer service. One specific goal was to reduce the number of bumped passengers from the airline’s departures. Soon, other airlines were joining in on that pledge.

It appears that effort to cut down on bumping is quite successful.

According to a news release from the U.S. Department of Transportation, bumping cases in 2017 reached their lowest level since such statistics first were kept in 1995.

The release says U.S. carriers “posted a bumping rate of 0.34 per 10,000 passengers,” wiping out the previous low mark of 0.62 in 2016.

The release continues: “These carriers posted a bumping rate of 0.18 per 10,000 passengers for the fourth quarter of 2017, an improvement over the 0.55 rate for the fourth quarter of 2016.”

From October through December 2017, Delta reported 24,793 passengers were bumped voluntarily from their flights. This means these travelers agreed to give up a booked seat, most likely in exchange for compensation.

An involuntary bump occurs when the airline cannot recruit any ticketed passengers to give up seats. Delta only reported 10 involuntary bumps in that time frame.

One year earlier, those numbers for Delta were 36,471 and 326.

United’s decline in bumping was even more dramatic. Voluntary bumps for those same months in 2017 are reported at 8,483, down from 15,696 during the same period in 2016. Involuntary bumps at United dropped from 891 to 44. Other major carriers showed similar results. Indeed, United claims in its fourth quarter report to have decreased involuntary bookings 92 percent from April-December 2017.

All of this is good news for travelers who don’t want unexpected travel delays, and the airlines certainly are to be commended for taking better control of the overbooking issue.

But there are some travelers who are bound to be a bit disappointed.

Some budget-minded fliers show up at the airport actually hoping to be bumped in exchange for vouchers that cut the costs of future trips. In some cases, vouchers worth $500 or more in future travel could be secured for a few hours of inconvenience.

We show up early to the gate, and ask the attendant if the flight is overbooked. If so, we announce that we might be willing to volunteer for a bump in return for free future travel. This usually comes as welcome news to the gate attendants, who don’t look forward to recruiting volunteers or, worse, involuntarily bumping a booked passenger.

After the Dao incident, both United and Delta announced they’d be willing to offer up to $10,000 in compensation to bumped passengers. The maximum amount offered for that fateful United flight was $800.

It still doesn’t hurt to quietly ask about oversold flights upon arrival at the gate. Overbooking probably won’t disappear in the near future. But if you’re thinking a nice fat travel voucher will pay for next year’s vacation, it might be time to formulate a backup plan.