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American Airlines has bumped more passengers this summer than all other US airlines combined

By KYLE ARNOLD | The Dallas Morning News | Published: November 22, 2019

DALLAS (Tribune News Service) — Judith Lillien knew she was likely to get bumped when she looked at the boarding group on her 44-passenger American Airlines flight from New York City to Indianapolis in August: dead last.

The gate agent was calling for volunteers to take a later flight, but Lillien had to be in Indiana to move her parents into a new nursing home.

“There was no way we were taking a later flight,” she said. “The entire point of the trip was to get there for this event.”

But not enough passengers volunteered to give up their seats. Lillien and her husband were forced off for a flight 12 hours later.

They were just two of thousands of American Airlines passengers this year involuntarily denied boarding to flights for which they bought tickets. In fact, American Airlines is bumping passengers from overbooked flights at an industry-leading rate, a problem even worse on its wholly-owned regional carriers.

American involuntarily denied boarding to more than 3,400 passengers in the key three-month travel period from July through September, more than the rest of the U.S. airline industry combined, according to U.S. Department of Transportation data.

The risk for passengers to get bumped could be the highest in years as North Texas airports are expecting record crowds for the upcoming Thanksgiving week and possibly its busiest day ever on Dec. 1.

After struggling with the problem last year, Southwest bumped 314 passengers during July through September. United Airlines bumped 15 passengers. Delta didn’t bump any and has involuntarily denied boarding to just six passengers this year.

“One reason they are bumping is a function of delays and cancellations,” said Henry Harteveldt, an air travel analyst. “It’s the chaotic situation that exists at American.”

American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein said the company is aware it has bumped an increased number of passengers this year and said it stems from so many of its aircraft being out of service. American Airlines has 24 of the grounded Boeing 737 Max jets, but was supposed to get 16 more by the end of this year. The company also fought publicly with its mechanics unions and accused them of intentionally sidelining jets during an ongoing contract feud.

“We definitely want to drive down the number of involuntary denied boardings since we know it has an impact on our customers," Feinstein said.

Bumping happens when airlines have to deny passengers a seat on a plane that’s already been paid for. It happens because airlines routinely overbook flights or have to overpack a plane to make up for delays or cancellations on other flights. Sometimes airlines bump passengers to make room for pilots and flight attendants needed for a flight elsewhere.

Overall, the rate of passengers getting bumped has been falling steadily over the last decade. It peaked in 2009 with about one in 8,100 passengers forced to get off flights. In 2018, that dropped to one in 71,000 passengers. But bumping rates have come up so far this year, led by American.

Usually, airlines try to offer compensation to passengers through cash, credits or even upgrades on future flights.

Government statistics show that Delta oversold more flights in the third quarter this year. Some 142,403 Delta passengers voluntarily took themselves off flights during the period, compared to 138,708 at American.

Delta has been able to persuade passengers to get off planes, partially by offering compensation up to $9,950 in vouchers.

Airlines took heat in 2017 for overbooking planes when Dr. David Dao, a Vietnamese-American passenger, was forcibly and violently dragged off a United Airlines flight out of Chicago. Dao was seated on a flight to Louisville and was asked to give up his seat for an airline crew member needed in another airport. When Dao refused, airport police forcibly removed him from the plane in a violent exchange caught on video. He suffered a concussion, a broken nose and lost two teeth. Footage of the incident went viral and put a focus on the bumping practice. Dao settled with United out of court.

“Airlines shouldn’t have to bump passengers at all," said William McGee, an aviation adviser with Consumer Reports who testified before Congress after the Dr. Dao incident. “It’s not a passenger problem; it’s an airline problem.”

When passengers get bumped, airlines are required to pay up to 200% of the one-way ticket price up to $675 for delays of one to two hours. When passengers wait more than two hours, compensation goes up to 400% of the one-way ticket price and is capped at $1,350.

McGee said airlines should simply raise the compensation until passengers get off the plane voluntarily.

“There is always a price that will get someone off the airplane,” McGee said.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, which stopped overbooking flights in 2017, said that has helped lower rates of passengers being involuntarily denied boarding, although it still happens because of cancellations and delays.

American’s struggles aren’t isolated to this summer. The airline has bumped 12,241 passengers this year through September. Feinstein points out that the rate is still very small -- about 1 in 12,000 passengers. American Airlines, based in Fort Worth, carried nearly 150 million travelers in the first nine months of 2019.

Feinstein said most instances of overbooked airplanes at American come from operational problems, such as canceled flights or delays, not from overselling.

The airline is also working on changes that could help with bumping. It has introduced updates to its mobile apps that will notify passengers earlier if flights are canceled, delayed or overbooked.

“The goal is to let them know before they leave home,” Feinstein said.

They are also working on a new bidding system to let customers accept voluntarily bumping from their smartphones.

American Airlines is also in the process of changing the seating configuration in airplanes. So for example, all Boeing 737s will match all other Boeing 737s in seating capacity. Right now, some planes hold 175 passengers while others hold 160, Feinstein said. When planes need to be switched out because of mechanical problems or weather, sometimes its replaced with a plane with a dozen fewer seats.

Its passengers are more likely to get bumped if they are flying on regional airlines, such as Envoy or PSA Airlines, both wholly-owned by American. Passengers are more than twice as likely this year to be bumped from an Envoy flight this year as mainline American. Feinstein said that’s because smaller planes flown by regional airlines are more susceptible to weight and balance problems, which can arise from too much cargo or changes in temperature.

Still, airlines oversell flights because usually there are a handful of passengers who won’t show up for a given flight, said Kurt Ebenhoch, executive director with Travel Fairness Now. For passengers afraid of getting bumped, Ebenhoch said they need to go online, check-in for their flight and get a seat assignment as soon as possible.

“Even if it’s a center seat in the back, at least it’s a seat,” he said.

Your rights when you get bumped

What is getting bumped? A paying passenger involuntarily being denied boarding to a flight.

Who qualifies for compensation? Passengers who bought a ticket, checked-in and arrived at their gate on time and who will arrive at their destination more than an hour late. It doesn’t apply to passengers who volunteer to take another flight.

How much do they owe you? On domestic flights, airlines are required to pay passengers 200% in cash or check of your one-way tickets costs up to $675 for delays to your final destination between one and two hours. For more than two hours, that goes up to 400% to a maximum of $1,350. For international flights, the delay requirements for 200% goes up to one to four hours. Airlines are free to compensate customers more.

What else might airlines have to do? Airlines have to give bumped passengers a written explanation of how they decided who gets bumped along with a list explaining their rights.

What doesn’t count as getting bumped? Passengers who are intoxicated, interfering with crew members or flight operations or have an offensive odor not caused by illness or disability

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation

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