Passengers are getting bumped from flights at the highest rate in at least 14 years, even though the U.S. Department of Transportation last year doubled the penalties airlines have to pay passengers who have tickets but are denied seats.
Among the reasons: Passengers are more reluctant to voluntarily give up seats when flights are oversold for fear of being stranded for a day or two. And some airlines have made their vouchers less generous to save money.
Bumping is still relatively rare, affecting fewer than two passengers out of every 10,000. But the rate at which passengers were bumped in the second quarter skyrocketed 40% compared with a year ago, and airlines say the higher rate will likely continue.
As carriers have slashed capacity, grounding airplanes and cutting flights from schedules, they have packed more people into their remaining flights — sometimes too many people.
“It’s pretty simple: It’s just because planes are more full than last year,” says Tom Trenga, vice president of revenue management at US Airways Group Inc., which had the highest bumping rate among major airlines, at 1.88 passengers per 10,000 in the second quarter.
This summer, the nine major airlines filled 85.5% of their seats, up from 84.1% last summer. The peak was July, with 86.7% of seats filled. This fall, airlines are aggressively cutting back capacity even further, worried that continued weak business travel could cripple them financially.
In the second quarter, the most recent reported by the DOT, 20,916 passengers, or 1.39 for every 10,000, were involuntarily denied boarding at major and regional airlines, up from 15,119, or 1.0 per 10,000, in the same period of 2008. (Ten times as many people gave up their seats voluntarily in return for airline vouchers toward future trips.)
If you do get bumped, you are entitled to cash compensation under the DOT’s penalty rules, though the airline will likely offer you vouchers. You can insist that the airline pay you on the spot. Do it. Vouchers can have blackout dates, require you to purchase higher fares to use the voucher or even require you to cash in the voucher and buy a ticket in person at an airport rather than booking online.
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