Involuntary Bumping Gets Bumped

The involuntary bumping of airline passengers has taken a nose dive.

In the last quarter, from April to June, U.S. carriers registered the lowest quarterly rate since the federal government began collecting such data in 1995.

The number of incidents of ticketed passengers who were refused a seat on flights fell to 44 customers per million from April through June, the Department of Transportation said on Tuesday. The rate was 29 percent lower than the corresponding period in 2016, when 62 customers per million were bumped, according to the DOT.

How did this startling improvement in customer service come about?

United Airlines spokesman Jonathan Guerin explained it. He told NBC that “We are always looking at new ways to innovate and improve the customer experience… United has already taken steps to reduce overbooking, resulting in a nearly 90 percent year-over-year reduction of involuntary denied boardings for the month of June.”

Guerin was referring specifically to a new tryout program called “Flex-Schedule,” that will email passengers ahead of certain flights to query them on their flexibility — i.e., willingness to be bumped — in return for a travel voucher for up to $250.

It’s wonderful that United is always thinking up ways to improve the customer experience; but that’s not how Flex-Schedule was born. That, and a number of other innovations — like much higher compensation for involuntary bumping, raised from a maximum $1,350 to as much as $10,000 — were thought up in the wake of the scandalous incident in which a passenger was brutally forced off a United flight on April 9.

The passenger, David Dao, 69, a doctor from Kentucky, claimed a concussion, a broken nose and damaged teeth. He was compensated for the injuries and indignities, and hopefully has by now fully recovered; but airlines are still shuddering from the black eye they suffered as a result.

A video of a bloody Dao being dragged off the plane went viral, and public outrage was like nothing the industry had ever seen. United and several other carriers noted for their high-flying insensitivity to customers were in turn dragged before a congressional panel and threatened with regulatory intervention. Even the cherished right to overbook was at risk.

The effusive contrition of airline executives, backed by pledges of immediate policy changes to correct the situation, mollified the lawmakers, bought time to implement the changes, and the record-breaking statistics cited above were among the results.

Other culprits in the overbooking and bumping business have also been seeking methods to mitigate the evil, if not abolish it. American Airlines, for example, has set up a desk that monitors every oversold flight and gets involved earlier to find volunteers willing to give up their seats.

The federal government has not kept entirely to the sidelines, either. Frontier Airlines was slapped with a fine of $400,000 after the DOT caught it denying seats to people before properly calling on volunteers to relinquish theirs, and then balked at paying compensation, according to the Los Angeles Times.

American Airlines received a $250,000 fine for similar behavior. Delta was fined $200,000 by DOT for mishandling luggage.

The practice of overbooking is defended as an economic necessity, which protects airlines from losses due to no-shows and some fares that allow passengers to easily switch flights at the last minute, leaving empty seats.

“A bakery doesn’t want to have a lot of extra pastries at the end of the day [that] they have to throw out,” said Seth Kaplan, managing partner at Airline Weekly, an industry publication. “To an airline, an empty seat is basically the same thing as stale bread. It’s something they can never sell again.”

The rationale is not unanswerable, however. For one thing, the bakery doesn’t force you to eat the stale bread; the airlines do force people off planes to sell their seats to somebody else.

The simile may be arguable; but in May, Southwest Airlines took the most radical step, giving up on overbooking altogether and limiting denied boardings to operations-related problems. In other words, they ate the empty seats.

It remains to be seen whether Southwest will find its new policy economically viable. If it does, then Congress should reconsider imposing restrictions on overbooking. If Southwest can do it and continue to prosper, why not others?

In the meantime, it is preferable that the airline industry regulates itself.

But it is clear that public outrage, not the altruism of the airline industry, is what brought about this positive change.