A viral video of a man forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight when he refused to give up his seat on a flight has left many fliers wondering what rights they have in such situations.
Here’s a rundown of rules on bumping, from a 2011 article in the AJC when the U.S. Transporation Department boosted compensation for passengers who were involuntarily bumped. (It’s updated with the most recent numbers on bumped passengers.)
Airlines are federally required to compensate travelers who are involuntarily bumped from oversold flights.
Your chances of being in such a predicament are very small, however. Most people who are bumped give up their seat voluntarily in exchange for credit toward future flights. But if not enough fliers volunteer, some may get bumped against their will.
In 2016, U.S. airlines involuntarily bumped fliers at a rate of 0.62 per 10,000 passengers, the lowest since 1995, according to the DOT.
Delta Air Lines had 1,238 involuntarily bumped passengers in 2016, a rate of 0.1 per 10,000 passengers. That was the second-best rate among U.S. airlines. Southwest, Atlanta’s second-largest carrier, had 14,979 involuntarily bumped passengers last year, a rate of 0.99 per 10,000 — the second-worst rate.
People involuntarily bumped are entitled to cash compensation. In 2011 the amount was doubled and is now $1,350, depending on the value of the ticket and how long the person had to wait for another flight.
Though rare, getting involuntarily bumped “can be really devastating, ” said Kate Hanni, founder of FlyersRights.org. Travelers going on honeymoons or headed to funerals may have long-planned or urgent travel plans disrupted, Hanni said. “People believe they have a seat when they buy a seat. They have no reason to believe otherwise.”
Bumping is, in part, due to airlines’ practice of overbooking flights to make up for passengers who don’t show up.
When seats go out empty, “Over time, it’s a significant amount of revenue for an airline,” said Jeff Houston, Southwest Airlines director of revenue management. So airlines generally look at how many no-shows a flight historically generates and overbook slightly.
“Given that the costs of a flight are considerable, particularly with what we’re seeing with high fuel prices these days, being able to cover these costs helps us continue to operate,” Delta spokesman Trebor Banstetter said.
Delta credits its relatively low involuntary bumping rate in part to a system it started in 2010 which involves taking bids from passengers checking in online or at an airport kiosk who are willing to volunteer to take a later flight.
In 2016, Delta had the most voluntary bumpings of any U.S. airline, at 129,825.
Southwest touts its lack of change fees, but that also contributes to a higher rate of bumped passengers because the policy produces a slightly higher no-show factor, according to Houston. He said Southwest believes change fees are a larger negative to customers than a higher overbooking rate.
United’s CEO pledged an internal investigation of Sunday’s incident, which, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune, involved a United Express flight operated by Republic Airways. Agents had asked for bumping volunteers prior to boarding. After passengers were seated, they asked for four more. When none offered, four passengers were randomly selected.
One, saying he was a doctor who needed to see patients Monday morning, refused to give up his seat, the Tribune reported. Authorites were called and, as other passengers looked on and some shot video or took pictures, the man was dragged out of his seat and up the aisle.
United confirmed the four seats were given to crew members who needed to work on flights at the destination.
The 2011 rule doubled the amount of money passengers are eligible for if they are involuntarily bumped from an oversold flight.
Bumped passengers are entitled to cash compensation equal to double the one-way value of their tickets, up to $675, if the airline was able to get them to their destination within a short period of time (within one to two hours of their originally scheduled arrival time for domestic flights and one to four hours for international flights).
If they were delayed for a lengthy period of time (more than two hours after their originally scheduled arrival time for domestic flights and four hours for international flights), they are entitled to four times the value of the one-way price of their tickets, up to $1,350.
Inflation adjustments are made to the compensation limits every two years.
-- Source: U.S. Department of Transportation