Air­lines push back on talk of ban­ning over­book­ing flights

Delta CEO says key is man­ag­ing be­fore board­ing

The Commercial Appeal - - Business - DAVID KOENIG

DAL­LAS - With the fed­eral gov­ern­ment and a Se­nate com­mit­tee look­ing into the drag­ging of a man off a United Ex­press flight, air­lines are be­gin­ning to speak up against any ef­fort to bar them from overselling flights.

The CEO of Delta Air Lines called over­book­ing “a valid busi­ness process.”

“I don’t think we need to have ad­di­tional leg­is­la­tion to try to con­trol how the air­lines run their busi­nesses,” Ed Bas­tian said Wed­nes­day. “The key is man­ag­ing it be­fore you get to the board­ing process.”

Fed­eral rules al­low air­lines to sell more tick­ets than they have seats, and air­lines do it rou­tinely be­cause they as­sume some pas­sen­gers won’t show up.

The prac­tice lets air­lines keep fares low while man­ag­ing the rate of no-shows on any par­tic­u­lar route, said Vaughn Jen­nings, spokesman for Air­lines for Amer­ica, which rep­re­sents most of the big U.S. car­ri­ers. He said that plane seats are per­ish­able com­modi­ties — once the door has been closed, seats on a flight can’t be sold and lose all value.

Bump­ing is rare — only about one in 16,000 pas­sen­gers got bumped last year, the low­est rate since at least the mid-1990s. But it angers and frus­trates cus­tomers who see their travel plans wrecked in an in­stant.

Bump­ing is not lim­ited to flights that are over­sold. It can hap­pen if the plane is over­weight or air mar­shals need a seat. Some­times it hap­pens be­cause the air­line needs room for em­ploy­ees who are com­mut­ing to work on an­other flight — that’s what hap­pened on United Ex­press.

Flight 3411 was sold out — pas­sen­gers had boarded, and ev­ery seat was filled — when the air­line dis­cov­ered that it needed to find room for four crew mem­bers.

That even­tu­ally led to the video ev­ery­body has seen — a 69-year-old man be­ing dragged off the plane by se­cu­rity of­fi­cers af­ter re­fus­ing to give up his seat.

In a se­ries of three state­ments and an in­ter­view, United CEO Os­car Munoz be­came in­creas­ingly con­trite. On Wed­nes­day, he told ABC-TV that he would fix United’s poli­cies and that United will no longer call on po­lice to re­move pas­sen­gers from full flights.

Politi­cians have jumped on the pub­lic out­rage.

On Wed­nes­day, 21 Se­nate Democrats de­manded a more de­tailed ac­count of the in­ci­dent from Munoz. A day ear­lier, the top four mem­bers of the Se­nate Com­merce Com­mit­tee asked Munoz and Chicago air­port of­fi­cials for an ex­pla­na­tion.

Sen. Richard Blu­men­thal, D-Conn., asked the U.S. De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion to an­a­lyze “the prob­lem of over­book­ing pas­sen­gers through­out the in­dus­try.” He said he was work­ing on leg­is­la­tion to in­crease pas­sen­gers’ rights.

Fed­eral rules re­quire that be­fore air­lines can bump pas­sen­gers from a flight they must seek vol­un­teers — the car­ri­ers gen­er­ally of­fer travel vouch­ers. That usu­ally works — of the 475,000 peo­ple who lost a seat last year, more than 90 per­cent did so vol­un­tar­ily, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment fig­ures.

United said, how­ever, that when it asked for vol­un­teers Sun­day night, there were no tak­ers. United ac­knowl­edged that pas­sen­gers may have been less will­ing to lis­ten to of­fers once they were seated on the plane.

“Ideally those con­ver­sa­tions hap­pen in the gate area,” said United spokes­woman Me­gan McCarthy.

Air­lines are sup­posed to have rules that de­ter­mine who gets bumped if it comes to that. United’s rules, called a con­tract of car­riage, say this may be de­cided by the pas­sen­ger’s fare class — how much they paid — their itin­er­ary, sta­tus in United’s fre­quent-flyer pro­gram, and check-in time. United has not said pre­cisely how the four peo­ple asked to leave Flight 3411 were se­lected.

United bumps pas­sen­gers less often than av­er­age among U.S. car­ri­ers. In 2016, it bumped 3,765 pas­sen­gers, or one in ev­ery 23,000. Pas­sen­gers were twice as likely to get bumped from South­west Air­lines. Hawai­ian, Delta and Vir­gin Amer­ica were the least likely to bump a pas­sen­ger against his will.

DAVID GOLD­MAN/AP

A Delta Air Lines jet sits at a gate last Oc­to­ber at Harts­field-Jack­son Atlanta In­ter­na­tional Air­port in Atlanta. De­spite the re­cent up­roar over a pas­sen­ger be­ing dragged off a United Ex­press flight, Delta CEO Ed Bas­tian says over­book­ing is “a valid busi­ness process.”

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