When it comes to overbooked flights, no one is safe.
Beginning Sunday evening, a video went viral of a man who said he was a doctor, being forcibly removed, or “re-accommodated,” from a United Airlines flight at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport because the flight was overbooked, a common practice among airlines. His face bloodied, the man was dragged up the aisle of the airplane by a airport security officer after he refused to get off the plane. (The security officers has since reportedly been placed on leave, and United’s chief executive, Oscar Munoz, has launched an investigation into the incident.)
It’s not the first time this happened. In the past, more high-profile passengers have faced the same indignity. Nobel Prize–winning economist Robert Shiller knows this only too well. Two years ago, he was bumped off a United Airlines
flight from Denver to Aspen, Colo., after he and his wife, Virginia, had already taken their seats on the airplane. Shiller, who teaches at Yale University was a victim of overbooking, economist Nouriel Roubini tweeted after the incident. (A United spokesperson did not respond to request for comment.)
It’s a risk every traveler takes when flying, and not everyone believes a Nobelists should be given preferential treatment over another passenger. “Is there a rule which says Nobel winners should get preferential treatment?” one person tweeted.
“Bob would never think because he’s a Nobel Prize winner that he deserves anything better than anyone else,” his wife, Virginia, who was also on the flight, told MarketWatch at the time. The Shillers were among those told to leave the plane because, she said, she bought their tickets on a travel website. “Apparently, our fare was the lowest,” she said. “I will never do that again.”
‘It’s like something they do in socialist countries.’
So what happened? Just as in the O’Hare incident on Sunday, the airline staff waited to see if people would volunteer for a cash reward, she said. “They said if nobody was volunteering, they’re going to have to pick someone,” she said. “They said, ‘You’re going to have to get off the flight.’ It was just extraordinarily difficult and inconvenient. What if your daughter was pregnant or you were going to a funeral? They ended up paying us $2,700, which did not cover the alternative arrangements we had to make. Never in my wildest dreams did I think they would walk up to us. They did not listen to any of our explanations.”
It would have made more sense for United Airlines staff to offer a larger incentive for passengers (who did not need to be at their destinations that evening) to agree to take a later flight, she added. Virginia Shiller said the staff were only permitted to volunteer an amount totaling several hundred dollars, but it may not have been enough of an incentive to persuade volunteers to take a later flight. “It was totally irrational. They probably could have gotten a volunteer to take $2,700. They have these formulas. It’s like something they do in socialist countries.”
At the time, a spokeswoman for United Airlines said that the company could not comment on the details of this case, without knowing all the details of the flight. She said the compensation for those who are denied boarding — or, in the case of the Shillers, actually asked to leave the plane — vary according to the circumstances. When asked if the plane needed to lighten its load or whether there were elite flyers who still waiting to board the flight (and who take precedence over other travelers), the spokeswoman declined to comment.
The United Airlines policy states: “The priority of all other confirmed passengers may be determined based on a passenger’s fare class, itinerary, status of frequent flyer program membership, and the time in which the passenger presents him/herself for check-in without advanced seat assignment.” If alternative plans are more than four hours after the original planned arrival time, United will pay compensation to passengers denied boarding involuntarily from an oversold flight at the rate of 400% of the fare to the passenger’s first stopover, or a maximum of $1,350.
So why were the Shillers chosen to be “re-accommodated”? Travel experts and consumer advocates say there’s a pecking order and, as such, there are ways to avoid getting booted off a flight, and the Shillers fell victim to one of those rules: They booked their flight via an online travel website and were in possession of one of the cheapest tickets on that particular flight. This might merit consideration if you have a pressing engagement — a wedding or business meeting or, equally important for some, the first day of a vacation.
“Checking in and getting to the gate late sets passengers up for involuntary bumping, since airlines are quick to read latecomers as no-shows in overbooking situations,” according to Christine Sarkis, editor at travel advice site Smartertravel.com. “Being late is especially risky if you’re flying on a popular route or during a busy travel season.”
Airlines have different methods for deciding who does and doesn’t get to fly on overbooked flights, but elite-status flyers are generally more immune to being bumped, said Rick Seaney, the chief executive and co-founder of ticket aggregator site FareCompare.com. “Some might be the amount of money paid for the ticket,” he said, “or it could be done alphabetically using the spelling of your last name. “It’s done by some predefined algorithm. If airlines can’t get enough voluntary bumping, they have to move to involuntary bumping.”
And, he said, that’s when the trouble starts (and the angry tweets).
Those who purchased an economy or discounted fare from a travel website could be on the chopping block first, said Cory Miller, owner of TheFlightExpert.com, a site that features travel deals advice for flyers. A passenger who is not a member of the airline’s or a partner airline’s frequent-flyer program is also at risk. “Increasingly, though, airlines are bumping even basic members of their own frequent flyer programs in favor of those with elite status,” Miller said. One tip to avoid being bumped: Book online and print out your boarding pass before leaving for the airport.
“Airlines can oversell ad nauseum, with no restrictions on the number of oversales,” said Kate Hanni, a co-founder of the nonprofit organization FlyersRights.org who started campaigning after she and her family were stuck on a runway for nine hours (and 17 minutes) in Austin, Texas, on Dec. 29, 2006. FlyersRights.org has fought for and won an increase in bumping compensation, she said. “We also fought for language that is to be delivered at the gate to prospective travelers who are being offered substandard compensation, in order to further expand the airlines margins,” she added.
In 2011, the Department of Transportation doubled the amount of compensation for bumping passengers due to overbooking, and it has also been raised to keep pace with inflation. They are now entitled to cash compensation equal to the value of their tickets, up to $400, if the airline can get them to their destination within one to two hours of their scheduled arrival time for domestic flights and one to four hours for international flights. Bumped passengers are entitled to double the price of their tickets, up to $800, if they are delayed for more than that, and could receive four times the value of their ticket, up to $1,300.
Airlines will seek volunteers to receive travel vouchers in the case of an over-booked flight, said Melanie Hinton, a spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade organization representing U.S. airlines. The rate of people being bumped from flights has been falling in recent years.
From October to December 2016, there were 8,955 “involuntary denied boardings” (or bumps) by U.S. airlines or 0.54 per 10,000 passengers (versus 10,317 or 0.69 per 10,000 a year earlier). The rate was lower than that average for United Airlines flights between October and December 2016 (0.40 per 10,000 passengers or 891 bumps, down from 0.70 per 10,000 a year earlier). There were also 106,723 “voluntary denied boardings” from October to December 2016, down from 108,113 for the same period a year earlier. For involuntary denied boardings airlines should make an offer of compensation in cash, travel or miles, as outlined by the Department of Transportation.
Airlines, depending on their level of desperation and/or how crowded the flight is, offer incentives such as cash, free air vouchers, meals, free drinks and even upgrades. As Virginia Shiller suggested, many travelers are willing to wait for the next available flight, as long as they like what’s on offer. “What feels like a major inconvenience for most is an opportunity in disguise for passengers with a bit of patience and flexibility,” Sarkis said. “There’s a breed of flyers that jumps at the chance to be bumped, people who find the rewards associated with voluntary bumping worth a few extra hours in the airport.”
That, of course, did not happen on the United Airlines flight Sunday night.
(This story was updated.)