Overbooking, Bumping, Removal, Regional Airlines, and Your Rights
The following is not a defense of United Airlines’ policy, nor a full review of exactly took place on Flight 3411, but is instead an explanation on overbooking, bumping, passenger removal, and regional airline operations. Take this information and draw your opinions from that.
What is overbooking and why do airlines do it?
The airlines have never been an easy industry to make money in. If you add up the entire history of profits and losses, the airline industry as a whole is a loss. Profits are rare and it takes unique ideas to stay in the black.
For some airlines (not all!) one of those ideas include overbooking. This is the practice of selling more tickets than there are physical seats on the aircraft. This is done because airlines cannot make money from an empty seat. Since people often end up missing their flights, the airlines developed somewhat of a science behind which flights will have a specific amount of no-shows. Overbooking happens on many flights and often goes off without a hitch, either with passengers missing their flights and the seats getting filled as planned or with some passengers needing to be voluntarily or involuntarily bumped.
To clarify, overbooking and bumping happens every single day without issue across multiple airlines.
What are other reasons for being bumped?
Sometimes passengers may need to be bumped if an aircraft is overweight due to restrictions that pertain to weather, fuel, airport operations or other factors that have safety in mind. Sometimes airlines also need to make room for crewmembers to fly to operate another flight, which will be explained in another section.
What is supposed to happen when passengers are bumped?
If those no-shows do end up showing up and the aircraft is truly overbooked, then the U.S. Department of Transportation’s protections require that the airline first “voluntarily bump,” by seeking passengers that are willing to take a later flight, along with a clear amount of compensation. That amount of compensation is not regulated and is up to the airline, and the amount offered may increase in order to entice potential volunteers.
Involuntary bumping (refusing flight to a paying passenger) is what takes place when there are no volunteers. This means that the airline must choose who is denied boarding. The choice of who to remove is usually done by either whoever paid the lowest fare, or who was the last to check-in within the same fare class, though policies will differ from airline to airline.
These passengers then receive compensation in the form of rebooking, and a monetary amount based on a scale that is based on when their rebooked flight will be. Unlike voluntary bumping, these dollar amounts are laid out by the U.S. DOT. Airlines are also required to report the number of passengers who are voluntarily or involuntarily denied boarding on domestic flights. In 2015, the last full year with data available, 0.09% of passengers were denied boarding, with 90% of those voluntarily. Only 46,000 passengers were involuntarily denied out of over 613 million domestic passengers, for a rate of 0.007%, or 1 out of every 13,229.
All of this is typically able to be accomplished at the gate area before boarding begins.
What if a passenger that is already on the aircraft refuses to get off?
If an airline feels that customer services obligations are met and exhausted, and a passenger on board an aircraft refuses to deplane, the airline has the right to contact police to handle the situation. Whether someone agrees or disagrees with the reason, once the police are involved, the handling (physical or other) of that passenger is largely out of the airline’s hands.
Why did United need to remove passengers for crewmembers?
Details on this particular occurrence are not certain, but to zoom out and shine some light on why this happens at some airlines in the industry…
United flight 3411 was not operated by United Airlines exactly, but instead by a regional carrier, Republic Airways, that United hired in a “doing business as” operation called “United Express.”
Regional airlines in particular are currently in the midst of a pilot shortage. As a result, when there are delays or issues throughout their flying network, it is common for regional airlines (or any airline to an extent) to put crewmembers on confirmed seats in order to go operate other flights, which is known as “deadheading.” When last minute changes occur, airlines are sometimes faced with the decision to either remove one or two passengers from one flight to make room for deadheads, or cancel the entire flight that those two crewmembers are trying to get to.
Again, the flight being operated by a regional airline does not mean that United Airlines’ responsibility is removed. Airlines that hire regional affiliates have, however, already been looking into options to reduce their dependence on those regionals, such as Delta’s acquisition of Boeing 717 aircraft and forthcoming purchase of the Bombardier CSeries jets, which have capacities similar to larger regional jets, but are operated by mainline crews.
What can passengers do?
First, know your rights by reading through the U.S. DOT passenger rights, which you may also know as the “Passenger Bill of Rights,” that was passed by many of your own politicians some years ago as a result of public outcry. If you do not like any of these rights as they are laid out, or feel they should be revised, write to those same politicians again and let them know.
Otherwise, read the policies of each airline and the fine print (not-so-fine, actually, as defined by the DOT), and purchase tickets on the airline that you think will best suit your needs.
Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has aviation experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. He owns and operates NYCAviation and performs duties as an aviation expert through writing, consulting, public speaking and media appearances. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.