April 7, 2020

Bumpy Skies

By Stephen Tuttle | April 22, 2017

United Airlines and their passengers are having a relatively bad couple of weeks. United dragged a man off a flight with cell phone cameras rolling, and their CEO botched a number of explanations and apologies. A few days later they removed a couple on their way to their wedding over seat assignments. Both airline and and at least one passenger behaved poorly.

Last year, more than 631 million passengers traveled by air in the United States. The overwhelming majority had a perfectly reasonable experience. Nationally, just more than half a million people were bumped off flights, about 50,000 of which were involuntary. 

Our own Cherry Capital Airport had a record breaking year with more than 451,000 passengers. Busy summer travel up here means it's almost certain somebody will be bumped. Why?

Airlines intentionally overbook flights because they have reams of data indicating certain percentages of people will cancel flights or simply not show up. Empty seats cost them money. When everybody does show up, there are more passengers than seats. The bumping will then commence.

You can also be bumped because that airline has a crew that needs to get where you're going, the aircraft is overweight, military personnel needing to get somewhere, or various other reasons.

In the best of circumstances, the process begins and ends at the gate. An announcement requests volunteers, vouchers are offered and you can negotiate for a better deal. If no one, or not enough people, come forward voluntarily, the airline will decide who gets bumped.

They like to call it random but there's nothing random about it. Every airline has their own rules within federal regulations. They do their best to accommodate people who need rather than want to be on a flight. But they do have a formula. 

How much you paid for the flight (the more you paid, the less likely to get bumped), your status as a frequent flier (the higher up the chain the better), when you made your reservations (the earlier the better), when you were ticketed (those ticketed at the gate are more likely to get bumped), and where you're seated (first class passengers never seem to get involuntarily bumped) all play a role. 

You will be compensated, most likely with a voucher and, if you're stranded awaiting a connecting flight, an additional voucher for a place to stay for the night. Airlines gain absolutely nothing but bad publicity with involuntary bumping, so they might keep sweetening the voucher pot to encourage volunteers. There's nothing wrong with asking for more.  

Let's assume you've become one of the unlucky few to be involuntarily bumped. It is wildly, maddeningly inconvenient. But your smartest option is to silently curse your fate and politely disembark. If you must irrationally vent your anger, wait until you're off the plane.

Once on board, even while still at the gate, the captain and crew are the law, prosecutors, judge and jury. If they say you have to leave the plane, you absolutely must leave.

Arguing with the flight crew is asking for all kinds of trouble and your chances of prevailing are pretty close to zero. Interfering with a flight crew, which is what you're doing, is a federal offense so now you've missed your flight and perhaps gotten yourself arrested. 

A perfect example of what not to do was provided by the good doctor dragged off the United flight literally kicking and screaming.

It can be argued -- and will be in coming lawsuits -- United acted foolishly by selecting a medical professional with a practice as an involuntary bumpee. They then overreacted by notifying airport security, which also overreacted violently, allegedly breaking the man's nose in the process.

But again, inside an airplane is not the place to make a stand about your right to be on the flight. Loudly protesting or refusing to leave is not going to help. At all.

If you pored through the entire contract on your ticket or an airline's website, you'll discover your ticket allows you transport from point A to point B. It does not guarantee when that transport will take place nor does it guarantee you a seat on a specific flight.

Acme Airlines will get you to Los Angeles, but the trip could be interrupted by weather, mechanical issues, insufficient crew members, no available aircraft or you might get bumped. If your morning flight becomes an afternoon flight, or today's flight becomes tomorrow's, Acme is still fulfilling their contract and you you'll likely be compensated for any serious inconvenience.

The odds are well in your favor that you will never be bumped from a flight. If you are, take a deep breath. Sometimes life is just rude. Don't contribute to the misery by acting the fool.   

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