If you're one of the 51 million people flying on US airlines this holiday season, you may be pleased to know you now have the lowest chance in more than two decades of missing your flight because you got bumped (if your flight actually departs on time).
“It’s not only the lowest [bumping] rate in 25 years, it’s actually the lowest number, even though total passenger volume is up 57 percent,” Samuel Engel, the head of the aviation department at management consultancy ICF, told Motherboard in an interview. But the lower bumping rates aren’t evidence of some kind of larger airline altruism at play, even if it may have been framed as such. Airlines are benefitting too.
Bumping is what happens when airlines oversell flights, which they do as a way to protect their already thin margins against passenger no-shows. But on occasion, everybody who booked a flight actually does arrive on time at the airport—and that means some people will have to be put on a different flight, or get bumped.
It either happens voluntarily—usually by coaxing passengers on to later flights by offering a voucher for future travel—or involuntarily, as in the case of David Dao, who was literally dragged off a United Express flight last spring for refusing to comply with the airline’s involuntary bumping requests.
Bumping often feels like a broken promise—which is why some incidents can go viral
According to figures recently reported by the US Department of Transportation (DOT), US airlines have been doing better on both fronts. The 12 top-revenue-generating airlines in the US involuntarily bumped just 2,745 people between July and September of this year. That’s compared to the 11,968 people who were involuntarily bumped between July and September of 2016. (Voluntary bumps were also lower.)
“The rate has been declining. Why? The real answer is twofold,” Engel explained over the phone. “One is that the airlines have overwhelmingly switched to non-refundable tickets or tickets with [very] high change fees.”
These changes have helped boost the predictability of no-shows, he added.
The second reason is that airlines’ revenue management systems have become more sophisticated at calibrating overbooking. Plus, following the Dao incident, airlines have empowered gate agents and other front-line staff to offer more valuable incentives. United made headlines in the weeks following the dragging snafu, when it announced it would compensate bumped passengers up to $10,000 in vouchers.
Overbooking makes business sense, and as Engel explained, it’s actually good for travelers. If airlines regularly fail to fill seats, that drives up the overall per-passenger cost of travelling.
Emotionally speaking, though, bumping often feels like a broken promise—which is why some incidents can go viral. A video detailing Dao’s forcible removal was viewed millions of times the world over, and caused a shitstorm of bad press for both United and US airlines in general, which subsequently vowed to do better.
“I follow the airline industry but even I was shocked by how viral that story went. It beautifully summed up people’s frustration with airlines,” said Ben Schlappig, the 27-year-old owner of travel blog One Mile At A Time, whose gallivanting ways were once profiled by Rolling Stone.
Schlappig travels 500,000 miles a year by his own estimation, and has previously received all kinds of vouchers and upgrades for volunteering as tribute to the bumping gods. But he hasn’t been bumped from a flight for nearly eight months.
“I used to have amazing luck with this, but I haven’t had a single bump since the Dr. Dao situation,” he lamented on the phone last week from Los Angeles, while on a short break between separate trips to Easter Island and Sydney, Australia.
Delta, which also now offers a maximum of $10,000 to bumped passengers, has had an auction-bidding system in place since 2011 that allows people checking in to oversold flights to say how much they’d be willing to get bumped for. “Delta calls up people in order of lowest price,” said Schlappig. Other airlines, including United most recently, have followed suit.
It’s advantageous for airlines to take people’s bumping bids ahead of time, rather than having an all-out bidding war at the gate, because it limits the compensation they’ll have to pay out—and not all passengers know the value of their seat or their time.
But all this adds up to bad news for people like Schlappig, who actually want to get bumped—if the price is right. Since last spring, the most he’s heard a passenger receive for a bumped flight is a $4,000 voucher, which happened in September 2017 for what ultimately amounted to a nine-hour delay. “I will drag myself off a plane for $4,000,” joked Schlappig.
Correction: This article initially identified ICF as "ICF International," but the company's name has changed. The piece has been updated to reflect this.
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