The next time you purchase an airline ticket, it might be worth considering that you aren’t necessarily getting a seat on that particular flight. You’re essentially buying a ticket for stand-by.
That’s really how the system works with airlines routinely overselling seats on their scheduled flights. But is that the way it should work?
The issue has grabbed the spotlight following the well-publicized incident in which a passenger was dragged from his seat on a United Airlines flight at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
The problem arose because the airline was attempting to make room for four employees of a partner airline on the flight to Louisville. That meant four passengers would have to give up their seats.
The airline followed the usual procedure of asking for volunteers, offering $400 vouchers initially, then upping the enticement to $800. Still no takers. So the airline selected four passengers at random, three of whom left willingly. The fourth, reportedly a doctor who said he needed to get home in order to treat patients, refused to leave.
Enter a cadre of security officers who, after trying to coax the passenger, finally resorted to hauling him from his seat and dragging him down the aisle of the plane by his arms.
A video of the incident posted online went viral, and United has come under a barrage of criticism for its actions. The airline defended itself, saying it followed proper protocol.
The incident has prompted discussions in this country about the rights of passengers. The Liberal government said on Monday it will introduce new legislation this spring to address the issue of travellers being bumped from overbooked flights.
It’s a common occurrence. An Associated Press story points out that last year, United Airlines forced 3,765 passengers to surrender their seats on oversold flights, and another 62,895 voluntarily gave up their seats.
That means in 2016, more than 66,000 United passengers were bumped from their flights. And United doesn’t even have the highest rate of bumping passengers. That distinction apparently belongs to ExpressJet, while among the largest airlines, Southwest Airlines had the highest rate, with JetBlue Airways ranked second.
The root problem is the matter of overselling flights. It’s understandable why the practice occurs; sometimes scheduled travellers don’t show up and it’s inefficient for airlines to fly with empty seats.
But if flights are being oversold, airlines need to make it clear to passengers that they are not necessarily buying a seat on the flight, they’re buying a stand-by seat, and that they could be bumped if everyone actually shows up.
With computerized booking, it should be possible to track when a flight has been filled and mark bookings after that time as stand-by tickets, so passengers know where they stand. The four passengers bumped from the United Airlines flight in question might have purchased their tickets well before the flight was filled, but that didn’t matter once the airline started picking passengers at random. It becomes a game of Russian roulette with less dire consequences, but still unpleasant.
It would help if passengers could be informed before they board the plane (as is often the case) that volunteers are needed to take a later flight.
Perhaps the compensation amounts should be increased, too. Surely if sufficient compensation had been offered, United would have found four willing volunteers on the flight from Chicago.
Marc Garneau, Canada’s transportation minister, noted, “We recognize that when a passenger books a ticket, they are entitled to certain rights.”
Yes, they certainly should be, but is that actually the case?
Gabor Lukacs, a passenger rights advocate, said the United video highlights the need for better consumer protection, adding, “Sadly, people realize what bumping actually means only when an incident so extreme happens.”
There has to be a better way of doing things. Let’s hope this incident will bring about improvements that will offer better protection for air travellers.