KNOW YOUR RIGHTS
The violent removal of a passenger from a full United aircraft has prompted heated debate over flyers’ rights. Jenny Southan explains why airlines overbook and how it might affect you
Why airlines overbook flights and how it can affect passengers
Most frequent flyers will have experienced being bumped at some point during their travels, but few will have grabbed the headlines in the way that Dr David Dao did on a recent United flight from Chicago. Video footage of the passenger being violently removed from an aircraft by police for refusing to give up his seat went viral, and the airline was publicly shamed into settling a legal case filed by the plaintiff out of court.
While the story made headlines across global news sites, it did bring to the fore important questions about air passenger rights. In the case of Dao, he had been granted boarding but after he was picked to be removed to allow space for a United employee – and he refused to get off – he was “involuntarily deplaned”. In this instance, it resulted in a broken nose and two lost teeth.
A more common issue for air travellers is being denied boarding as a consequence of overbooking, whereby the airline has sold more tickets than it has seats on the plane. Most airlines do this as a matter of course, and the consequence is that staff will either ask for volunteers to take a later flight (“voluntary bumping”) or pick on someone of their choosing (“involuntary bumping”). In both instances, where you are in the world and which airline you are travelling with will determine what compensation you are entitled to – if any.
According to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), 50,000 people were bumped from UK flights in 2015 (the equivalent of 0.02 per cent), either because of aircraft being swapped for smaller planes at the last minute, or overbooking.
The CAA says: “Airlines overbook because they sell a certain number of flexible tickets which means that those passengers do not have to travel on specific flights. They therefore anticipate a certain number of ‘no-shows’.” If a passenger is denied boarding, they are entitled to a “minimum level of compensation, and must be offered an alternative flight, or ‘re-route’, at the earliest opportunity or at a date that suits, or offered a full refund, if they no longer want to fly”.
Travel editor Simon Calder told the Press Association that, in general, overbooking was a “benign practice”. He said: “The airlines make more money so they say they can keep fares down, the environment is better off because planes are flying fuller, passengers that desperately need to travel can book a seat on a flight even though it’s technically sold out, and people like me, who are happy to be flexible and to be paid money not to get on a flight, are happy because we make more money on the deal than we paid on the flight in the first place.”
Bill McKimm, UK business development director at technology consultancy ThoughtWorks, has a different viewpoint: “Overbooking tends to be a fairly blunt instrument – the airline will have a set algorithm across routes irrespective of thick routes like London-Paris where load factors are 99 per cent to 100 per cent, or smaller routes where the load factors are 50 per cent. We should be more intuitive, especially on the routes that have a higher propensity for no-shows.”
OUTDATED PRACTICE George Hobica, founder and chief executive of airline deals and advice site AirFareWatchdog, points out that overbooking, which is “a revenue play designed to increase profits” (but, in theory, brings down ticket prices), is an outmoded approach. He says: “Airlines started overbooking in the 1960s when, before the internet, you could call an airline and make a reservation without putting any money down. Back then, planes were 50 per cent empty – you would just pay when you arrived at check-in. But some people wouldn’t show up.”
He adds: “It was simple. Airfares were published on monthly timetables, there were no advance purchase discounts and no non-refundable fares. With no non-refundable fares, the airlines could safely overbook flights and it wasn’t a problem because there would be plenty of seats. But now we have non-refundable fares, which means that airlines in Europe, for example, keep your fare if you don’t show up – and sell your seat to someone else. They double-dip.”
Not all airlines overbook – JetBlue in the US and Ryanair in Europe are two that don’t. “It’s our longstanding policy,” a Ryanair spokesperson says. Its website states: “You don’t need to notify us if you are unable to travel [but] if you do not travel on your booked flight, the airfare, fees and charges are nonrefundable.” This means they are getting paid even if the traveller doesn’t show up.
After the United scandal, Southwest Airlines announced in April that it would stop overbooking. “The last thing that we want to do is deny a customer their flight,” said chief executive Gary Kelly. Although United didn’t agree to do the same, it consented to offering compensation of up to US$10,000 to passengers who volunteered to be bumped, an amount that Delta Air Lines said it would also be willing to pay. “After this, I don’t think we are going to see too much involuntary bumping,” Hobica says.
McKimm suggests improvements to back-end technology could also spell an end to overbooking because no-shows can be predicted. “I think machine learning and artificial intelligence should be able to help anticipate when people aren’t going to make their flight,” he says. “It will also be able to prompt people on the morning of their flight to check they are still available and inform of any queues at security.”
Until then, bumping (which could still happen if an airline needed to accommodate crew or an air marshal, for example) could be handled with more sensitivity and creativity, using techniques such as “gamification”. He says: “Given increasing numbers of people are using mobile boarding passes, the airline could send a message saying: ‘For today only we are offering a luxury stay in a five-star hotel in exchange for flying tomorrow, and the first three customers to take it win.’” IN THE KNOW Until overbooking is a thing of the past, passengers need to be aware of their rights and what they are entitled to. Those travellers who are most vulnerable are those in economy class, who are not a member of the airline’s loyalty scheme, who are on a cheap ticket and are travelling with hand baggage only (a suitcase in the hold will be more problematic to deal with).
United has consented to offering compensation of up to US$10,000 to those who volunteer to be bumped