With the federal government and a Senate committee looking into the practice, airlines are beginning to speak up against any effort to bar them from overselling flights.
Delta’s CEO 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.
Politicians have jumped on the public outrage.
On Wednesday, 21 Senate Democrats demanded a more detailed account of the recent incident from United. A day earlier, the top four members of the Senate Commerce Committee asked the airline’s CEO and Chicago airport officials for an explanation.
“The last thing a paying airline passenger should expect is a physical altercation with law enforcement personnel after boarding,” said the committee members, two Republicans and two Democrats. They asked about the airline’s policy for bumping passengers, and whether it makes a difference that passengers have already boarded the plane.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) asked the Department of Transportation to analyze “the problem of overbooking passengers throughout the industry.” He said 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 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 their will.
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