Remember how bad last week was for Delta’s operation? If you do, you’re the only one. As of yesterday, Delta’s problems were forgotten. Once the video surfaced of a man being dragged off his oversold United Express flight, bloodied and battered, the public moved on to its next fascination of the moment. This looked really bad, without question, and the uproar was fierce. I received inquiries from more than half a dozen media outlets, and the tidal wave of emails and texts from friends was more than anything I’d seen in a long time. As bad as this may be for United, there is something that’s unfairly getting dragged through the mud: overbooking. The two issues are completely and totally unrelated.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this incident itself, but I will go over a few points. The United Express aircraft operated by Republic was full and boarded. Republic crewmembers showed up at the gate saying they had to get on or a subsequent flight would have canceled, stranding dozens. If it’s not clear enough, I’ll say it. This wasn’t an overbooking issue, despite some earlier reports that may have come from United itself. There was just an operational need to get crew on the airplane.
United tried to get volunteers (arguably not hard enough) but couldn’t, so eventually, United’s customer service reps identified the people who would have to be pulled off. One person repeatedly refused to obey the requirement that he get off the airplane, and the police were called in to remove him. You’ve seen the video of what happened next.
We can talk about whether this could have been handled better or not, but it doesn’t matter. United is getting skewered regardless, and it’s a runaway train. The memes are spiraling out of control, and I can’t help but laugh. Here’s one of my favorites.
— Linquel Isswell (@linquel) April 10, 2017
I originally thought this would hurt the airline for maybe a day… until the next person with a camera phone caught something and the world moved on. But this one may have some staying power, some of it thanks to United’s response. So be it. Debating the details won’t change anything, but maybe I can at least help salvage the reputation of overbooking.
JetBlue continues to be the lone straggler that refuses to overbook, but for everyone else, it’s a regular part of doing business. And airlines have invested a ton of money and effort into developing systems that have made them smarter and better at this. If you don’t believe me, take a look at this table from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. For travel within the US on reporting carriers, the percentage of people denied boarding fell to a mere 0.09 percent in 2015, the last full year of easily accessible data. This is even more remarkable when you consider how much more full airplanes are today. Look here.
Since 2003 (the last year of easily accessible load factor data), airlines have filled a much higher percentage of seats while seeing their denied boarding percentages drop.
It’s a solid achievement, but maybe you think that still sounds like a lot. After all, it amounted to a total of 552,000 people, or 1,512 people a day in 2015. But what you have to remember is that the vast majority of the people being denied boarding are really, really happy about it.
There are two kinds of denied boardings. More than 90 percent of the people who were denied boarding in 2015 did so as volunteers. The airline made an offer to get them to take a later flight, and the travelers accepted. They walked away with a slight inconvenience, but they got vouchers for future travel and were almost definitely happy about it. The airline was happy too, because chances are it was able to take an expensive last minute booking that it otherwise would have had to turn away.
It’s that other sub-10 percent that’s the problem. Specifically in 2015, 46,000 people, or about 126 a day, were involuntarily bumped off airplanes. That means the airlines tried to get volunteers and they couldn’t, so they were forced to pick and choose which people would get bumped. While the travelers undoubtedly weren’t happy, federal rules ensure that an involuntary bumpee gets a big payday; up to 4 times the value of the ticket capped at $1,350. Oh, and she still gets to keep the ticket to go on the next available flight.
Everybody hates those situations, because they’re terrible. When people don’t want to get bumped but are forced out (preferably not physically forced, mind you, Chicago Aviation Police). And the airlines have to pay out a ton of cash, so they aren’t happy either. But the number is so miniscule, at 0.008 percent of passengers in 2015 that it’s really just a rounding error. (No, it doesn’t feel that way if you’re impacted, but it’s the truth.)
On the whole, the airlines make more money overselling flights than they lose paying out compensation. And this actually does help keep fares lower. If airlines couldn’t oversell flights, they would generate less revenue overall and have to find a way to recoup those costs. You can connect the dots on what that means. Of course, if enough people were impacted that the pain was too great, then either the airlines or the feds would do away with overbooking. But considering how many people benefit from being on an oversold flight and volunteering to get paid (over 550,000 in 2015), it’s not something that a lot of people WANT to go away.
Feel free to jump on the “United sucks” bandwagon if you must (don’t forget to drag the Chicago Aviation cops down with you), and you won’t be alone. But stop dragging (get it?) overbooking’s good name through the mud. (And to the media, please stop reporting that this was an overbooking issue.)