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Involuntary bumping seems to be a thing of the past

IF AVIATION had an astrological sign, 2017 would surely be the Year of the Bump. Most infamously, it was the year that a United Airlines passenger who refused to leave an overbooked flight in April was dragged violently from the plane. There followed airline policy changes to reduce involuntary bumping, a novel system to make bumping less inconvenient, and even bipartisan action in Congress to render involuntary bumping illegal.

Such headlines suggest that the practice is spiralling out of control. In fact it is at its lowest level since the government began recording data in 1995, according to a Department of Transportation report issued last week that covers 12 American airlines. In the second quarter of 2017, 0.44 passengers per 100,000, or about one in 227,000, were forced to miss a flight because their plane was overlooked. That is the lowest quarterly rate on record, and a significant drop from the 0.62 rate in the second quarter of 2016.

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Could that just be a reaction to the PR nightmare that followed the dragging incident? Not entirely. The first half of the year, most of which took place before the United fiasco, also saw the lowest involuntary bumping rate of any January-June period on record, 0.52 passengers per 100,000. Monthly data are not available, so it is impossible to say how much the practice has declined since April, but two things are clear. First, such denials-of-boarding were not at their apex prior to the incident—they already seemed to be in decline. And second, it now appears to be completely on the way out.

Even if Congress does not ban it, airlines are stopping the practice themselves. Southwest said this spring that it would cease overbooking flights. United is working to bump passengers voluntarily, sometimes several days in advance of flights, to avoid conflict. The Department of Transportation recently fined Frontier Airlines for denying boarding to passengers without first seeking volunteers. The practice used to make economic sense because it allowed airlines to overbook flights without facing significant consequences if too many people showed up to board. But, given the media fire that engulfed United, the fear of self immolation is now too strong.

In any case, airlines now have other worries. The same Department of Transportation report found that in June there were more delays and cancellations compared with both June 2016 and May 2017. Complaints were also up 7.7% from a year earlier. With profits still strong, carriers see little need to antagonise travellers further by kicking them off flights against their will. Involuntary bumping may have been the big aviation story in the first half of the year but, as is often the case, it seems to have drawn our attention after the worst of it had passed. The dragging incident appears not to have been its apex but its last gasp.

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Source: economist
Involuntary bumping seems to be a thing of the past

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