For those who’ve never seen an “involuntary …denied boarding” incident on an airplane, today’s United Airlines incident provided a very graphic, tangible example.
Rarely does it ever go this far — ultimately, passengers had to be taken off that flight because a passenger’s blood was literally spilled on seats. But if you think involuntary bumping incidents are rare, you are wrong. It happened 46,000 times in 2015, the last year for which I could find data on the Department of Transportation’s website. That’s roughly 10 percent of all denied boarding incidents.
More than I would have thought.
To review, lots of people end up not flying on the flight they chose when they bought an airplane ticket — currently about a half-million annually. Airlines first ask for volunteers, and slowly ratchet up their offers if need be — a $200 voucher….a $400 voucher…and so on. These are recorded by the DOT as “voluntary” denied boarding incidents. But at some point, airlines are forced to “throw people off their planes” and give them federally mandated compensation. These are “involuntary,” and nearly almost happen at the gate, not after passengers board. About one out of 10 people bumped are “kicked off airplanes” without their consent.
Clearly, that means the offers of compensation aren’t high enough. Congress and the FAA should fix that immediately. More on that in a moment.
Browsing the data, it’s striking that the rate and number of involuntary bumps has been relatively constant through the years. In 2006, the rate of involuntary to voluntary was a shade under 9 percent. It climbed just above 10 percent a few years, spiked to 12 percent in 2013, then back to 9.1 percent in 2015.
So much for Big Data. You’d think airlines would get better and better at this over time.
In real numbers, the number of folks kicked off planes (I’m using that phrase loosely, except for today) hasn’t changed much. From 2003-2005, it ranged from 42,000-45,000. It was 46,000 last year. Total boarding climbed a bit during that time, from around 550 million to 613 million, so having flat “real” involuntary numbers shows a bit of improvement. On the other hand, ranging back to around the turn of the century, voluntary bumps happened consistently more than 1 million times each year. Remember, in 2015, they were 552,000. So they’ve been cut in half! Back then, forced bumps were in the 40,000-50,000 range, or about the same as today.
So, voluntary bumpings are down by a half, forced bumpings are nearly flat. Maybe the airlines are good at data after all!
Again, that means one thing: the voucher offers aren’t nearly good enough.
Let’s speculate about why that is. I’ve heard from many readers today about the vouchers they get from airlines in this situation, and here’s the truth: Experienced fliers are wise to the game. They are saying no more often. Vouchers aren’t all they are cracked up to be, and they certainly aren’t the same as cash. They expire. Sometimes their remaining value is surrendered (a $400 voucher gets a $300 flight and $100 disappears). Most of all, the vouchers must be used on the airline that just did the bumping. Who wants to fly an airline that just kicked them off a plane!
And, like rebates, some of them are never used, giving the airlines a secret source of revenue.
Here’s a data point I could not find (if you can, let me know). I’d love to know the real dollar value of compensation handed out by airlines for bumps. Are airlines really paying 90 cents on the dollar as compared to the federally-mandated compensation? Is it 60 cents? Or 40 cents? That would be easy to calculate. It also might embarass airlines.
On the other hand, it’s often hard for consumers to calculate the real cost of a flight delay. Sometimes, it’s nothing. Just a few hours. Sometimes, it’s 35 percent of a three-day weekend holiday. Or a missed business meeting that leads to thousands in lost business. Or a missed funeral. That’s hard to calculate when you are standing at a gate waiting to board a flight. The airlines have the upper hand in this negotiation, and that’s not fair.
Nothing about travel is certain, and we all should, whenever possible, prepare for the unexpected when we fly. This problem, however, isn’t unexpected at all. Airlines know exactly what they are doing when they are overbooking. It’s an arcane practice, and it doesn’t have to be this way. Forcing passengers to suffer because airlines can’t manage their systems is bad for consumers and the economy as a whole. As I’ve argued many times, subsidizing bad behavior by companies stands in the way of good companies offering superior service.
In a world where there was consumer choice, one could argue that airlines which recklessly bump passengers would eventually suffer the consequences, but that’s a laughable argument here — there is hardly any choice in U.S. air travel now, thanks to repeated mega-mergers.
All we have now is a race to the bottom. One that leads to a bloody passenger dragged out of his seat. As I wrote earlier today, that could be you.
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