The outrageous spectacle of a United Airlines passenger being dragged screaming from one of their aircraft because he refused to be randomly bumped from his flight has enraged airline passengers.
It should also enrage Members of Congress.
For the few among us who have not seen the video, the bottom line is that United needed four seats on its plane from Chicago to Louisville to take its crew to another flight.
They offered up to $800 in compensation to entice volunteers but failed to get enough takers. So they chose four passengers at random. Several agreed, one did not. United then had the Chicago police unceremoniously drag him off the aircraft – while the I-phone cameras of aghast fellow passengers rolled. These videos went viral.
The episode deservedly earned United millions of dollars in horrible publicity. It came on top of the spectacle of their denying boarding to two teenage girls wearing leggings.
But quite apart from the PR nightmare, this outrage may also result in changes in federal law that could avoid a repeat of this sorry episode.
Right now, as Huffington Post reported earlier, airlines are required by federal law to compensate passengers up to 400 percent of their ticket price up to a total of $1,350 if they are delayed more than two hours by involuntarily being bumped from an overbooked flight.
Airlines intentionally overbook flights to hedge against cancelations and assure that load factors are as large as possible – all so that they can make higher profit margins.
In most cases of overbooking, the agent asks for volunteers and then starts offering various levels of compensation to entice people to volunteer.
As a United frequent flyer, I don’t think I have ever seen compensation go over $800, although they are supposed to tell passengers what they are actually entitled to.
The sure way to avoid these problems in the future is to offer “volunteers” increasing amounts of compensation until they get enough takers – with no limit. The federal law should be amended to require this change.
At some price airlines will always get the volunteers they need. The airline should have to pay that price as the fair trade-off for inconveniencing its passengers in order to increase its own bottom line by overbooking.
And, by the way, the current federal law requires the airlines to offer bumped passengers cash money – not just “future travel credits.”
There are lots of ways that travelers can reduce their odds of being bumped – like becoming a frequent flyer with “status” on the airline, or flying at off peak times.
But it’s not really the responsibility of the passenger to avoid this problem – it’s the airline’s. Passengers have the right to expect that when they have a “reservation” they actually do have a “reservation” – that the word means what it says. Customers should not have to wade through paragraphs of fine print to understand what they are getting in exchange for their money.
And it’s worth knowing that different airlines have very different rates of bumped passengers.
United, for example, has a “bump rate” 21 times higher than the airline with the lowest rate, Hawaiian Airlines. Other airlines with low “bump rates” include Jet Blue and Virgin America. Delta actually has a “bump rate” 30 times that of Hawaiian – so if you move your patronage from United to Delta you will be jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.
And that is why the only way to really fix the problem is changing the federal law. That way everyone plays on the same level playing field – and if the compensation an airline has to pay can go as high as necessary to get the right number of “volunteers,” the airlines have a lot more incentive not to play it fast and loose with overbooking formulas to make a buck.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com. He is a partner in Democracy Partners and a Senior Strategist for Americans United for Change. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.