Bumped Passengers Learn a Cruel Flying Lesson
By SCOTT MCCARTNEY
Air travel has gotten a lot bumpier this year -- on the ground.
Passengers are getting bumped from flights at the highest rate in at least 14 years, even though the U.S. Department of Transportation last year doubled the penalties airlines have to pay passengers who have tickets but are denied seats. Among the reasons: Passengers are more reluctant to voluntarily give up seats when flights are oversold for fear of being stranded for a day or two. And some airlines have made their vouchers less generous to save money.
Bumping is still relatively rare, affecting fewer than two passengers out of every 10,000. But the rate at which passengers were bumped in the second quarter skyrocketed 40% compared with a year ago, and airlines say the higher rate will likely continue.
As carriers have slashed capacity, grounding airplanes and cutting flights from schedules, they have packed more people into their remaining flights -- sometimes too many people.
"It's pretty simple: It's just because planes are more full than last year," says Tom Trenga, vice president of revenue management at US Airways Group Inc., which had the highest bumping rate among major airlines, at 1.88 passengers per 10,000 in the second quarter.
This summer, the nine major airlines filled 85.5% of their seats, up from 84.1% last summer. The peak was July, with 86.7% of seats filled. This fall, airlines are aggressively cutting back capacity even further, worried that continued weak business travel could cripple them financially.
Is Bumping Passengers From Flights Right?
That means increased bumping will continue, Mr. Trenga says, until airlines see enough of a pickup in demand to begin bringing flights back into schedules, easing the logjam.
In the second quarter, the most recent reported by the DOT, 20,916 passengers, or 1.39 for every 10,000, were involuntarily denied boarding at major and regional airlines, up from 15,119, or 1.0 per 10,000, in the same period of 2008. (Ten times as many people gave up their seats voluntarily in return for airline vouchers toward future trips.)
If you do get bumped, you are entitled to cash compensation under the DOT's penalty rules, though the airline will likely offer you vouchers. You can insist that the airline pay you on the spot. Do it. Vouchers can have blackout dates, require you to purchase higher fares to use the voucher or even require you to cash in the voucher and buy a ticket in person at an airport rather than booking online.
Desperate for Revenue
Federal rules allow airlines to sell more tickets than there are seats on a plane because customers occasionally change flights or don't show up. Carriers have to balance the cost of compensating customers who get bumped with the cost of having an empty seat when a ticket could have been sold. With the economic downturn, airlines are desperate for any revenue and may be willing to take on more overbooking risk.
Several airlines say they have bumped more people from flights because they have had a harder time getting travelers to voluntarily give up seats. Because flights have been so full, a passenger who gives up a seat voluntarily in return for a voucher toward a future trip may have to wait a day or more to get a seat on another flight.
That means airlines end up refusing boarding to more ticketed passengers, Mr. Trenga says.
In addition, airlines often place heavy restrictions on vouchers. Sometimes vouchers worth $100 or $200 off a ticket can't be applied to the airline's cheapest fares, for example, or they have blackout dates or require customers to buy tickets in person at an airport instead of online.
Alaska Airlines, a unit of Alaska Air Group Inc., tried to cut the value of vouchers in December and saw the rate at which it bumped passengers soar 269% in the second quarter to 1.66 per 10,000, from 0.45 per 10,000 in the same period of 2008.
Before the change, Alaska and its Horizon Air regional-airline unit gave a free ticket to anyone voluntarily giving up a seat when a flight was oversold. But Alaska switched to a two-tier voucher system passengers got a $200 voucher to apply to a future ticket for giving up a seat on a shorter flight and a $400 voucher for a longer flight.
"The perception among those customers on shorter flights was that $200 wasn't enough to offer up their seats as a volunteer," a spokeswoman says. In June, Alaska upped the offer for volunteers on shorter flights to a $300 voucher, "and we've seen a steady decline in the number of involuntary denied boardings since," she says.
UAL Corp.'s United Airlines saw its bumped-passenger rate climb 73% this year to 1.71 passengers per 10,000, second only to US Airways. United says bumping increased because a greater number of leisure passengers have been filling planes than in the past as a result of the downturn in business travel. "They show up for their flight much more often than a business traveler typically does," a spokeswoman says. "As a result, we had fewer no-shows than what we typically see."
The DOT says it isn't concerned about the rise in bumping because the rates are still lower than historical highs. During the 1970s and 1980s, bumping rates were routinely four times as high as today's rate.
Still, the agency doubled compensation penalties for denied boarding last year, the first change in 30 years.
Passengers who are involuntarily bumped will receive compensation equal to their one-way fare up to $400 if they are rescheduled to reach their destination within two hours of their original arrival time for domestic flights and four hours for international flights. The mandatory compensation, depending on ticket price, doubles to $800 if passengers reach their destination later than the two-or four-hour limits.
The best way to avoid getting bumped from a flight is to buy tickets only for flights on which you can reserve a seat and to print your boarding pass early to lay claim to that seat. Passengers should be especially vigilant with regional airlines, which generally have the highest bumping rates in the industry.
And if you're not in a hurry and want to game the system--as many passengers do--you should book flights with few open seats at peak travel hours and tell gate agents early that you are willing to give up your seat if volunteers are needed. For some passengers, vouchers can cut the cost of future trips dramatically. Just make sure you know what you are getting from the airline, what strings are attached, and when your next flight out will be.
Write to Scott McCartney at email@example.com