What all the recent United Airlines headlines may mean for travelers

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 has been under fire for calling law enforcement to have a passenger, David Dao, forcibly removed from a flight from Chicago to Louisville earlier this month. The ejection, captured on video and widely shared on social media, caused an uproar and triggered a round of airline industry self-examination — and self-flagellation — that has continued.

But was the Dao case a watershed moment comparable to the series of passenger-stranding incidents in 2007? Those highly publicized events led to new rules that prohibit airlines operating domestic flights from permitting an aircraft to remain on the tarmac for more than three hours without deplaning passengers.

The initial changes seemed positive. United, which may have violated its own contract by removing Dao, apologized repeatedly and quickly changed an internal policy to make it more difficult to bump a passenger to accommodate a crew member. American updated its customer contract, promising it wouldn’t “involuntarily remove” a revenue passenger who has already boarded to make room for another passenger. And Delta Air Lines said it increased the maximum it could offer passengers when a flight is overbooked 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. One potential congressional bill, called the Customers Not Cargo Act of 2017, which has not yet been introduced, would revise regulations relating to oversold flights to prohibit the forcible removal of passengers.

Specifically, it would require the Transportation Department, which regulates airlines, to establish standards for resolving oversales once an aircraft has been boarded through the provision of 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.

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,” 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 says he has been bumped from flights, says 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.”

After numerous conversations with air travelers following the expulsion incident, it’s clear that while passengers are unhappy with the airline practice of overselling seats, a much bigger problem looms.

“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 a corporate culture that allows a passenger to be dragged off a flight. Stories about customers being treated rudely are so common these days, they barely raise an eyebrow for consumer advocates — or 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 put the spotlight on the systemic abuses that airlines unload on their paying passengers and the extent to which that attitude has been normalized. Undoing that is beyond the scope of a single bill. 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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