It happened to nearly 41,000 people last year.
They had their ticket. They packed their bags. They went to the airport and they went through security.
And then they were bumped off the flight involuntarily because the airline “oversold” the plane.
They weren’t all dragged down the aisle to the horror of fellow passengers, like the man on United Airlines. But the Department of Transportation reports that 0.62 of every 10,000 passengers on U.S. airlines were “involuntarily denied boarding” in 2016, an improvement from 0.76 in 2015. (There were nearly 660 million passengers on U.S. airlines in 2016.)
Nicole Mendez of Kansas City said footage of the United incident was so disturbing that she didn’t allow her children to watch it.
“I don’t think it’s right,” Mendez said. And on involuntary bumping in general: “People paid for those seats. They should be allowed to sit in them.”
United actually had a lower rate of involuntary bumping than the two largest carriers, Southwest and American. One in every 10,000 Southwest passengers was involuntarily bumped last year. Only Expressjet Airlines had a higher rate. United’s rate was 0.43 passengers in 10,000.
Delta, the third largest carrier, scored better with just 0.1 person per 10,000 passengers being involuntarily bumped. Only Hawaiian Airlines did better.
There is nothing illegal about overbooking a plane. Airlines do it all the time because, statistically, they know there will be no-shows on every flight and it is in their economic interest to fill as many seats as they can.
But there are rules, and there can be consequences for airlines that do not follow them. Delta was fined $750,000 in 2013 for failing to seek volunteers before bumping passengers involuntarily.
“Airline passengers deserve to be treated fairly, especially if they are forced to miss a flight because an airline oversold seats,” then-Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. “Consumers have rights, and we will continue to take enforcement action when airlines violate our rules to protect the traveling public.”
Basically, airlines are required “to ask people who are not in a hurry to give up their seats voluntarily, in exchange for compensation.”
The Department of Transportation acknowledges that almost any flight will have passengers with urgent travel needs as well as some who might be more flexible and would appreciate the compensation.
But this is supposed to be determined “at the check-in or boarding area.” The United passenger was already seated on the plane when he was forcibly removed because United wanted to make seats available for its own employees.
Passengers who volunteer to be bumped are generally offered a free trip or other benefits.
If there are not enough volunteers, airlines set their own “boarding priorities” for determining who to bump involuntarily. Some airlines look first to passengers with the cheapest tickets. Others look at the last passengers to check in.
“Once you have purchased your ticket, the most effective way to reduce the risk of being bumped is to get to the airport early,” according to the transportation department’s Consumer Guide to Air Travel. “Assume that the roads are backed up, the parking lot is full and there is a long line at the check-in counter.”
Jaron Myers of Kansas City often travels for comedy gigs, and he called the practice of overbooking flights “greedy business.”
He also takes issue with the airline vouchers given to ‘bumped’ fliers, saying they are sometimes limited to certain flights.
“And they expire so quick,” Myers said.
Another frequent flier, Sean Faulkner, said a good portion of Americans would likely support an airline’s right to bump its passengers, even after they’ve taken their seats. He added that with other airlines available to fliers, choice should serve to discourage poor service.
“Free market capitalism should more or less take care of improper customer treatment,” Faulkner said.