Flying the "Friendly Skies"? Be an Informed Consumer. Know Your Rights.
The incident that occurred on Sunday, April 2nd aboard a United Airlines flight departing from Chicago's O'Hare to Louisville has been declared one of the worst public relations disasters in history. And with good reason. Let's face it: it is unconscionable to rip a 69 year-old, paying passenger from his seat and drag him down the aisle of the plane after he has boarded the aircraft, period. It's even more infuriating knowing that the four seats that caused the overbooking situation were needed for United crew members who were deadheading (flying as a passenger on airline business to work another flight) to the flight's final destination in Kentucky where they were to board another flight.
This situation could have been avoided. There's this little thing called 'yield management'. United knew in advance of the flight that every seat was sold, and while the airlines are permitted to oversell their seat capacity, the gate agent should never have allowed passengers to board in the first place if they were going to need seats for crew. Offers of compensation (see below) for 'bumping' (being denied your seat even thought you have a paid ticket and a boarding pass showing a seat assignment) are generally made while the passengers are still in the waiting area preboarding. Those being bumped are usually the last economy fares to arrive at the gate.
I have experienced airline gate agents offering compensation to individuals who willingly give up their seats prior to boarding the aircraft. In fact, I have seen people go up to the gate agent and offer their seat in advance of any overbooking announcement, in lieu of compensation plus the promise of another flight leaving in a reasonable amount of time from the original one on which they were scheduled. I am also aware that people have been denied boarding (bumped) because they are late arriving at the gate and their seats have been sold to standby passengers. However, in my 30+ years of flying for business or leisure, I have never seen anyone forcibly removed from their seat, while already on board, due to an overbooking situation.
To add insult to injury, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz's two callous initial responses only served to further fuel a public relations disaster that was already burning out of control. A series of computer glitches grounding planes coupled with less-than-satisfactory customer service in 2016 and 2017 had already placed the airline in a weakened position against its competition. With social media what it is these days, the damage to United's image as a result of passengers' videos of this outrageous event being posted to Facebook, YouTube et al, created a public outcry that has negatively affected the airline's reputation.
But we're not here to talk about how United will overcome this terrible incident and resulting media catastrophe, captured - along with the horror expressed by other passengers on the flight who witnessed it first-hand - on someone's cellphone and which has gone viral. Our purpose is to ensure that our clients are fully aware of their rights and the limitations on those rights when they purchase airline tickets.
Why are airlines permitted to overbook their flights?
The plausible answer is that the airlines want to fill up every seat on their flights. Back in the day when airline tickets were refundable, 10-15% overbooking was 'acceptable' because of the possibility of 'no-shows' due to a more lenient airline ticket refund policy. However, if you think about it, most airline tickets sold today are purchased in advance and are nonrefundable. It seems logical, therefore, to assume that the airlines are going to make their money on that seat whether it's occupied or not (in the case of 'no-shows'); anything else might be construed as 'double dipping' (getting paid twice for the same seat).
What are your rights, as a paying passenger, in an overbooking situation?
If you are bumped, you are entitled to a written statement outlining your rights and you are also entitled to compensation from the airline, which can be negotiated (amount of cash compensation plus hotel reservations, meal vouchers et al). The guidelines are outlined in the link below. Always insist that the compensation be paid in cash rather than travel vouchers for future flights because the vouchers expire (read the fine print).
The Department of Transportation (DOT) mandates that the airlines do not have to offer any compensation if they are able to rebook a bumped passenger on another flight that will have them arrive at their destination within an hour of their original flight. Outside of that scenario, compensation must be offered and it must be made in cash (again, make sure you get cash because vouchers are usually offered to unknowing passengers). The rules change from there. The cap for domestic travel is $1,350.
For complete details including a breakdown on how compensation is awarded, see https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/fly-rights.
After this recent inexcusable treatment of a paying passenger who was already seated on the aircraft, maybe our clients who handle their own airline reservations (and a heads-up to our travel agent partners who book air) should take a serious look at how their future flights are reserved. For example, the protection of airline passengers' rights on foreign airlines leans more favorably in the consumer's direction than on U.S. passenger carriers. With this in mind, one might look at booking airline tickets through a foreign carrier that has a code share agreement with a U.S. carrier (such as the relationship between British Airways and American Airlines or Aer Lingus and United) because the foreign airline's policies better protect the rights of the ticketed passenger. In any event, read the fine print before a ticket purchase is made so that you know your rights and are aware of the limitations of responsibility by the airline.
Who is more likely to be involuntarily bumped?
We always advise our clients to arrive at the airport at least two (2) hours before scheduled departure of their domestic flights, and three (3) hours prior to international flights. In my more than three decades of experience as a frequent flyer on a number of different passenger carriers, I've noted that when an airline overbooks a flight and there are no volunteers (which is rare, by the way), the first to be bumped are usually the last people who checked in and arrived at the gate.
Having said that, I am also fairly certain that no airline is going to bump a first class or business class passenger nor one of their top-tier (1,000,000+ mile) frequent fliers. If the gate agent calls out for volunteers and no one responds, then it is reasonable to believe that they will probably select the passenger(s) who paid the least for their seat(s), and/or do not belong to their affinity program.
If your travel plans offer some flexibility, you might want to mention to the gate agent that you would be willing to give up your seat if needed as soon as you get to the gate. I've seen quite a few people - particularly retirees - offer up their spot on the plane for a generous compensation so that the gate agent doesn't have to ask for volunteers or bump other paying passengers.
As I indicated above, any bumping is generally conducted prior to loading passengers on their flight, not after they are settled in their seats on the airplane. Had the overbooking situation on United been handled appropriately in this manner, they would not be in crisis mode right now.
If you are bumped, be pleasant. I know, you're ticked off. Please keep in mind that it wasn't the gate agent who oversold the flight yet s/he is now responsible to find you an alternative way to get to your destination as painlessly as possible for all concerned. You get more with honey than vinegar. I say this because I know a number of cases where bumped passengers who treated the gate agent with respect were upgraded to first class on other flights and their alternative arrangements left only minutes later than their original plans. Sometimes it pays to be nice during adverse circumstances.
For more information on individual airlines' policies, check out their 'contract of carriage'. Click here for the link for United Airlines is https://www.united.com/web/en-US/content/contract.aspx. You can easily Google the same information published by other passenger carriers.
Update: United Airlines announced this morning that they will no longer remove any passengers from the aircraft once the passengers have boarded and are seated. Earlier this week, Delta Airlines announced that they will pay up to $10,000 in compensation to bumped passengers (!).