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

Business Traveller - - NEWS -

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

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