What all the recent United Airlines headlines may mean for travelers

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By Christopher Elliott

Now that the dust has almost settled from United Airlines’ infamous passenger-expulsion incident, travelers are left with several important and largely unanswered questions about how this kerfuffle will change air travel — if it does at all.

In case you missed it

United Airlines has faced significant criticism. The airline called law enforcement to remove a passenger, David Dao, from a flight. This incident occurred on a route from Chicago to Louisville earlier this month. Someone captured the ejection on video and it quickly spread across social media platforms. This incident caused a widespread uproar and led to a significant introspection within the airline industry. The industry engaged in self-examination and self-flagellation, a process that continues to this day.

But was the Dao case a watershed moment comparable to the series of passenger-stranding incidents in 2007? The highly publicized events resulted in the establishment of new rules. These rules apply to airlines operating domestic flights. They specifically prohibit an aircraft from being on the tarmac for more than three hours without allowing passengers to deplane.

The initial changes seemed positive. United Airlines, in a situation where it potentially violated its own contract by removing Dao, offered multiple apologies. The airline promptly made adjustments to an internal policy in response. (By the way, here’s what to do if an airline denies you boarding.)

This policy change aimed to create a higher level of difficulty in bumping a passenger to accommodate a crew member. American Airlines made updates to its customer contract. As part of these updates, the airline committed to a promise. This promise stated that they would not “involuntarily remove” a revenue passenger who had already boarded. They made this commitment to ensure that there wouldn’t be displacement to accommodate another passenger. Delta Air Lines announced a change. The change involved the increase of the maximum amount offered to passengers. This increase applied to situations when a flight is overbooked. They raised the maximum amount from $1,350 to $9,950.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has announced plans for an oversight hearing in the coming weeks to “learn more” about consumer issues related to air travel. Consumer advocates will watch that meeting closely to get a sense of whether more regulation is on the horizon, or the hearing is just for show.

Legislation is already in the works, too

Congress has not yet introduced a potential bill called the Customers Not Cargo Act of 2017, which would revise regulations regarding oversold flights to prohibit the forcible removal of passengers.

Specifically, the Transportation Department, which regulates airlines, would be required to establish standards for resolving oversales once an aircraft has been boarded. This involves providing escalating incentives to passengers to encourage voluntary re-booking. It would also require an air carrier, to the extent practicable, to resolve issues related to overselling a flight before boarding. (Related: Our host died and Dad’s not well — how about a refund?)

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Given the amount of public attention on this issue, the Cargo Act may get some legislative traction now, or more likely, when the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill comes before Congress later this year.

Would the proposed passenger bill’s language really solve the overbooking problem? Unlikely, to hear experts talk about it.

Overbooking is common

“Overbooking is common,” says David Corsun, who directs the University of Denver’s school of hospitality management. “It’s an effort to maximize revenue from a perishable inventory, like an airline seat. Since people often no-show, overbooking occurs to avoid idle inventory and a lost revenue opportunity.”

Corsun, who has experienced being bumped from flights, attests that the system almost always works, ensuring that every plane flies full. Incidents like the Dao expulsion are extremely rare, meaning that overbooking, for the most part, is a sound industry practice. And why fix something if it isn’t broken?

“There’s no easy answer here,” he says.

“The truth about overbooking is it’s going to become more prominent,” says Janet Bednarek, an aviation historian at the University of Dayton. “In today’s world, the airlines are only going to make money when they’re running at 80 percent capacity or above.”

Indeed, overbooking is such an accepted practice that even the federal government has given it an apparent stamp of approval. There’s a body of federal regulation that determines how much compensation an airline pays someone who is denied boarding. Airlines report their overbooking numbers to the government every month, which publishes the numbers online.

“Overbooking, overall, has worked well,” says Hani Mahmassani, head of the Transportation Center at Northwestern University, who is quick to note, however, that the Dao episode was “unacceptable.” It even benefits some air travelers, who “wouldn’t mind leaving a couple of hours later to collect a meaningful bonus.”

Unprofessional air travel norms

After engaging in numerous conversations with air travelers in the aftermath of the expulsion incident, a clear observation emerges. Passengers express dissatisfaction with the airline practice of overselling seats. However, a much larger issue is on the horizon.

“It seems like there are so many aspects of flying today that are accepted as fact by too many airline passengers,” says Tricia Kalinowski, a retired grocery store manager and frequent air traveler from Blaine, Minn.

That includes not only overbooking but also a corporate culture that permits dragging a passenger off a flight.
In today’s times, airlines treating customers rudely are so frequent that consumer advocates barely raise an eyebrow—or these incidents fail to resonate with the flying public. No wonder, then, that the airline industry remains one of the worst-rated businesses in America, when it comes to customer service.

“Airlines need to continue to pay attention to their overall customer experience,” says Peter Vlitas, a senior vice president of airline relations at Travel Leaders Group, a travel agency network. They can take meaningful steps now to do that, he adds. For example, when it comes to oversales, “that might mean scaling back the percentage of oversold seats or increasing compensation for passengers voluntarily taking alternate flights.”

If nothing else, the Dao story highlighted the systemic abuses that airlines subject their paying passengers to. It also revealed the extent to which this attitude has become normalized. Undoing that is beyond the scope of a single bill or the actions of a determined group of consumer advocates. It will take a concerted passenger rights movement, more public outrage and a penitent airline industry to pull that off. And so far, that hasn’t happened.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on X, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter.

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