If you're bumped from a flight, you may be stuck
By Evan Eile, USA TODAY
A power outage at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on July 15 delayed flights and closed security checkpoints for hundreds of travelers. Such a delay can cause a domino effect, bumping passengers.
MORE SEATS FILLED
Flights on domestic routes are more full than ever. Share of seats filled:
Source: Air Transport Association
Dan Reed, USA TODAY
Lots of luck catching another flight if you've been bumped or miss a connection.
Commercial airlines in the USA have never been so full. Seven of them — Delta, American, United, Continental, US Airways, AirTran and Alaska — reported filling at least 87% of their seats in July. Even Southwest, always the industry's laggard in load factor, beat the industry's average over the previous six Julys of 84.6% by filling 84.9% of its seats.
That leaves precious few spots available if you've been bumped off a full flight or miss a connecting flight. And because airlines are scheduling fewer flights than five years ago, travelers could face long waits for a direct flight to their destinations or have to settle for circuitous reroutings to get there.
Some travelers, such as Robert Beilstein, consider themselves lucky if a missed flight doesn't cost more than a day's time. Beilstein, a supply-chain software consultant from North Syracuse, N.Y., twice recently missed connections to San Antonio at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. He made it to San Antonio both times, after being rerouted via Denver.
"I did lose a day's worth of consulting revenue," he says. "But at least I did manage to get there in one day and didn't lose two days of revenue." He says he's even more "lucky" he hasn't been bumped from a flight lately.
For those who've been bumped off flights against their wishes, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has proposed increasing the maximum compensation from $800 to $1,300. The proposal is included in a package of "fliers' rights" rules that LaHood wants to impose this fall. The Air Transport Association, the trade group that represents the nation's biggest airlines, says it won't object to raising the compensation. Missing a connecting flight as Beilstein did is far more common than being bumped as a result of an airline selling more tickets for a flight than the plane has seats.
However, most delays leading to missed connections are caused by weather. And unlike overbooking, the weather is outside airlines' control. Most passengers who miss a connecting flight aren't owed anything, although airlines sometimes provide vouchers for meals and hotel rooms. LaHood isn't proposing to change that.
Most airlines automatically reschedule passengers with computer software that often predicts missed connections before a plane has landed. The airlines say this lets them speed people who've missed flights to destinations as quickly as possible.
Some travelers aren't convinced.
"Airlines do not care at all anymore if passengers are inconvenienced," says Jill Naas, a project manager from Seattle who flies at least monthly. She has been able to get other flights after missing connections, she says. But, she says, she's "had to fight like hell" and "emphasize" her elite-level frequent-flier status with airlines to do it.
A growing problem
Bumping, known as "denied boarding" in the industry, isn't a big problem, statistically speaking. In 2009, 69,416 passengers were involuntarily bumped, out of 584 million passengers boarded in the USA. An additional 695,510 were coaxed into giving up their seats by offers of discounts on future travel. The rate of involuntary bumping in 2009 was minuscule: 1.19 per 10,000 passengers boarded.
However, it's a growing problem. In the first half of this year, the rate rose to 1.37 per 10,000 boardings, the highest first-half rate of people involuntarily denied boarding in 16 years. The rise in involuntary bumpings is a byproduct of U.S. airlines' record-high passenger loads. That's the result of the airlines cutting capacity, or the number of seats available, by 12% since 2005 by reducing the number of flights or moving to smaller planes.
"The people who volunteer (to be bumped) ... tend not to be all that upset about it," says Ira Gershkoff, a former airline scheduler who develops software for SlipStream Aviation Software that helps airlines better match capacity to fluctuating travel demand. "They brag to their friends about the compensation they got. But those who are involuntarily bumped are upset. They ... had to be somewhere."
Ed Perkins, a contributing editor at SmarterTravel.com, says airlines for the most part handle the job of bumping passengers off a flight fairly well, though he thinks that passengers who are forced off flights against their will often aren't compensated sufficiently for the inconvenience.
"(Airlines) are able to take care of roughly nine out of 10 cases of bumping by offering people some kind of goody," says Perkins, who was Consumer Reports' travel editor for four decades. "But times do come when nobody wants to get off the airplane."
In addition to providing a seat on a later flight, carriers must pay involuntarily bumped passengers — in cash or by check — an amount equal to the price of their ticket, or $400, whichever is lowest. If the passenger arrives more than two hours late, the compensation cap rises to $800.
But the average domestic ticket in the USA in the first quarter of the year was $328. Few involuntarily bumped travelers ever get paid the full $800, or even $400. Typically, only those who buy first- or business-class tickets or full-price coach fares qualify for the maximum payout. The budget traveler flying on a $139 ticket gets only $139.
LaHood wants to raise the caps to $800 and $1,300. But Perkins says the formula, not the actual amount of compensation, is what's wrong.
"I see no reason why the dollar compensation should have anything to do with how much you paid for your ticket, because that doesn't have anything to do with the amount of inconvenience," he says. "The compensation should be a fixed amount. And for a lot of travelers, the money may not be near as important as fixing their trip. There ought to be more focus on that."
He says airlines should be required to put involuntarily bumped travelers on the next available seat to their destination, even if it means paying another airline to carry them.
Most airlines say they won't hesitate to put bumped fliers on competitors' planes if that's the best solution.
Monte Ford, chief information officer at American Airlines, says, "We have become more progressive in our thinking about how and when we put somebody on some other airline's aircraft. In a disruptive situation, we'll put somebody on someone else's airplane in a minute."
But critics such as Perkins say that's often done only as a last resort — often after a bumped passenger's frustration boils over into an ugly confrontation.
Airlines don't have to report the number of passengers who miss connecting flights. But Gershkoff, who is researching the issue, thinks about 7% of all passengers miss their connections.
On the surface, absorbing those fliers shouldn't be a problem.
Despite fuller flights, airlines still can't fill about 20% of their seats over the course of a year. But missed connections don't happen at a steady pace. They come in bunches, often when bad weather throws flights off schedule at one or more big airport hubs.
Delays, which often lead to missed connections, also tend to have a ripple effect. An hour's delay on one plane in Dallas in the morning becomes a 90-minute disruption in New York by noon, a three-hour nightmare in Chicago by 5 p.m., and a five-hour-late arrival on the West Coast by the end of the day. Along the way, 500 passengers scheduled to fly on that one plane have their travel schedules thrown into chaos. Chances are if one plane is affected, 30 others are, too.
"A 30-minute fog event at one airport can throw the rest of the day off," says Michael Baiada, president of ATH Group, a consulting group that does time-flow management consulting work for airlines. "The flights using that plane throughout the day just go later and later and later."
More than 1.9 million passengers board flights on U.S. airlines on the average day. If just 10% miss connecting flights or can't begin their trips on time because travel is disrupted elsewhere, about 125,000 people could be forced to compete for the few remaining unsold seats that day. (Schedulers estimate that about a third ofpassengers who miss flights are leaving from their home airport and go home to wait a day before flying or simply give up their travel plans.)
And there are fewer flights to get on than five years ago.
For example, travelers who missed United Airlines' first flight from Chicago O'Hare to Raleigh-Durham in August 2005 had six more United flights that day to choose from, a USA TODAY analysis of flight schedule data provided by OAG Aviation Solutions shows. Today, there are only four flights total each day.
Five years ago, Continental flew four times a day from Cleveland to South Bend, Ind., the data show. Today, it has three flights. American has cut the number of daily flights from Dallas/Fort Worth to Huntsville, Ala., to three from six. In 2005, Northwest flew eight times a day from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Minneapolis-St. Paul. Delta, which bought Northwest in 2008, flies the route five times a day now.
As a result, it can take travelers a day or more to reach destinations. It can cost hours of scrambling on the phone, extra expense and stress. It's also why travelers say it's important how airlines and airline workers treat them when things go wrong.
Mitchell Fong, a financial services industry executive from Mill Valley, Calif., who flies 200,000 miles a year, recalls a day last winter when his flight into Chicago arrived too late to make his connection to Milwaukee. United's computer system automatically rebooked him on the next available flight — the next morning. Fong would have missed his meeting in Milwaukee. Luckily, he hitched a ride that night with an associate who happened to be driving there.
"United was not sympathetic, did not offer any compensation and did not offer extras or perks to ease my situation," Fong says.
U.S. airlines' aren't obligated to provide anything beyond rebooking to travelers who miss connections for reasons beyond airlines' control, such as weather.Being an elite member of a carrier's frequent-flier program may be the single best way to avoid being bumped, and of getting one of the few available seats on the next flight. But it's no guarantee.
Airlines consider the price paid by each disrupted passenger for their ticket; whether any have health issues that require special attention or are unaccompanied minors; whether passengers are part of a group; and most important, which passengers will be the most inconvenienced, or delayed the longest, if they don't get the next available seat.
It also helps to check in early. Check-in times can be the tie-breaker.
Rahsaan Johnson, a spokesman for United, says the difficulty in getting a seat nowadays is overstated. And, he says, getting one shouldn't be thought of as a contest between passengers.
"Every day of the week, there are airline employees and retirees who are at the bottom of the stand-by list, who do get onboard planes and enjoy a flight," he says. "It's a fallacy that with 85% load factors, you can't get a seat. Statistically, it is more difficult. But it is done all the time."