Who Participated in the Ticket Oversales/Bumping Discussion?

Ticket Oversales/Bumping generated a lot of discussion.  99 comments were made on this post:

  • 75 comments by 61 users
    (2 comments were gathered by site administrators from the site feedback page, and added to this post by the moderator.  No username was associated with these comments.)
  • 24 comments by Regulation Room moderators

Commenters included primarily people who identified themselves as air travelers.  Eight commenters identified themselves as belonging to another interest group: three as researchers/experts, one as working for a U.S. air carrier, one as working for a travel agent or Global Distribution System (GDS), and three as unspecified “other.”

From September 13 to September 19, the Draft Summary was available for review.  Four users made comments. During this period, the Regulation Room team reviewed the comments on the Ticket Oversales/Bumping issue post again; as a result of this review, some additional detail has been added to this summary.

Better Information for Air Travelers

No commenter who addressed the issue is satisfied with the manner in which airlines disseminate overbooking and bumping information.  A variety of suggestions were made for giving travelers better warning and more complete information about options:

  • Airlines should warn consumers in advance of the possibility of being bumped and also ask passengers at the time of booking a ticket if they are willing to be bumped.  This possibility should be prominently disclosed on ticket sales websites and should be printed on itineraries, boarding passes, etc.  Some commenters would like to have notices about possible bumping posted in airports.
  • Some commenters favor a requirement that consumers get advance notice (e.g., 24 hours before the flight) if their particular flight is likely to be significantly oversold so that they can decide whether to make other plans; however, one commenter points out that airlines often don’t know whether bumping will be necessary until passengers check in, or not, for the flight.
  • Announcements should be made to passengers awaiting boarding as soon as the airline knows there may be an oversale situation.  To give passengers time to consider how to respond, they should be clearly informed of their options, including the amounts of compensation paid and the alternate travel accommodations the airline will make for passengers who volunteer or are involuntarily bumped.  One commenter suggests that information about an oversale situation should also be posted on airline TV monitors.  Another asks for handouts outlining bumping rules and passenger rights to be available at the counter in English and multiple languages.
  • Airlines should also tell passengers what system will be used to resolve the oversold situation (see next section).

Methods of Handling Oversold Flights and Transparency

Commenters agree that the airline’s first step in handling an oversold situation should be asking for volunteers.  Many believe this step will often be enough to solve the problem, especially if the airline has announced in advance the various compensation and accommodation rights.  However, one commenter, who is particularly concerned about discouraging oversales on routes on which a carrier has a virtual monopoly, argues that compensation for volunteers should be the same as for those involuntarily denied boarding.

If enough volunteers do not step forward in response to the gate agent’s request, one commenter commends the Wall Street Journal article suggesting an auction system in which airlines would offer passengers on overbooked flights a gradually rising reward for giving up their seat.  Another commenter suggests that airlines should bump based on the date passengers purchased their tickets, with later purchasers being bumped first.

Whatever method is used to select those who will be denied boarding, passengers should be informed of the selection criteria.  Commenters who addressed the issue agree with DOT’s suggestion that this information should include notice to passengers in danger of being involuntarily bumped of their situation, in enough time for them to decide whether to volunteer and take advantage of the higher compensation.  Additionally, a few commenters complain that airlines do not always follow existing regulations in this area and want to see more rigorous enforcement.

Compensation and Caps

Most commenters who addressed the current system of bumping compensation oppose caps.  About half of these commenters support compensating bumped passengers at 200% of the ticket price.  Some see this as appropriate to deter airlines from overselling.  Other commenters say that full ticket value is sufficient but the airline must also compensate bumped passengers for intangibles and/or housing.  (One commenter suggests full ticket value plus $100).  A handful of commenters support the cap policy with automatic periodic adjustment for inflation.  One commenter considers a $400 cap sufficient; this commenter fears that the higher caps will give travelers a windfall and thinks that $400 is a fair average of a one-way fare.

A few commenters are concerned that compensation based on ticket price will incentivize airlines to bump those who paid the lowest prices.  Several commenters worry that travelers with frequent-flyer tickets will be bumped first, making it important to settle the issue of compensation for zero-fair ticketholders (see below).  Some commenters suggest paying all bumped passengers a uniform compensation amount high enough to deter airlines from overselling and then bumping people with relatively inexpensive tickets.

One commenter argues that airlines should waive any cancellation fees if a bumped passenger chooses not to travel on another flight; if airlines are unwilling to waive restrictions and give a full refund to bumped passenger with a nonrefundable ticket, then they should be allowed to bump only passengers traveling on refundable tickets.  A few commenters support imposing additional monetary penalties on airlines that bump passengers repeatedly, with one suggesting that compensation should double for repeated bumping on the same flight for three or more weeks in a row.

One commenter is willing to accept a voucher as compensation but the others who addressed this issue supports a requirement that airlines offer the option of compensation in cash, noting that vouchers can be very difficult if not impossible to use.  One commenter points out that bumped passengers may not have check-cashing privileges in the area; credit card credit would be the most secure solution, but only if the credit is immediately accessible to the passenger.

Finally, one commenter proposes that airlines should not be allowed to charge passengers until they are on the flight.  That way, bumped passengers would not need to be compensated because they would not have paid the airline yet.

Small Aircraft

Most commenters who address the issue argue that aircraft size should be irrelevant to applying the bumping compensation rules, and strongly resist exempting the smallest aircraft.  One commenter points out that airlines are increasingly relying on regional carriers who fly smaller planes in smaller markets.  One commenter points out that it is usually more difficult to rebook in these situations; another expands on this point, drawing on his/her experience that in small airports served by small regional carriers, getting bumped can mean not getting to the traveler’s destination the same day or even the next day, which can cost the traveler lost vacation time, etc. in addition to compensable expenses.

A handful of commenters go further and urge DOT Department of Transportation  to prohibit oversales on small-aircraft flights because bumping is likely to be more disruptive to travel plans on routes that use small planes than routes covered by larger aircraft.  One commenter points out that there are less likely to be no-shows on these flights, given the number of business/full fare travelers.  Instead of overselling, airlines should use standby lists to deal with no-shows. Another commenter suggests that if oversales are not banned, at least they should be more limited.

Only one commenter would not apply the normal bumping compensation rules to small flights.  Typically, a smaller connecting flight will be either close to home, or close to the destination, where the traveler may opt for a rental car or taxi instead.  Therefore, this commenter suggests that compensation be based on what the alternative travel options are.

Banning Overselling

About a dozen commenters urge DOT Department of Transportation to ban airlines from overselling any flights.  In addition to the expense and plan disruption caused by being denied boarding, these commenters see oversales as a fundamental breach of the airline’s commitment to them—something that does not occur in other transportation contexts.

Two commenters disagree.  One would allow the current practice to stand because prohibiting overselling would lead to an increase in airline ticket prices and adversely affect everyone.  The other would not outlaw the overselling but would reduce the current level of oversales.

Several commenters strongly object to airlines’ practice of simultaneously selling many tickets that are nonrefundable and overselling seats.  To prevent airlines from getting a windfall, two commenters would require airlines to sell only fully refundable tickets if they are going to oversell seats.  Another would go in the opposite direction: prohibit overselling but reduce no-shows by making all seats non-refundable with no credit (like concert tickets).  At a minimum, airlines should be permitted to bump only travelers holding refundable tickets.  One commenter questions how no-shows hurt airlines: the airline has already sold the seat and will save fuel costs flying with less weight.

Various other methods of balancing airlines’ and passengers’ interests were suggested:

  • require airlines to keep 1-2 seats unoccupied on every flight to accommodate bumped passengers (or emergency personnel)
  • allow airlines to sell up to 5% of all tickets sold (or 5% of total seat capacity of the flight, whichever is less) as special standby seats not subject to the bumping compensation rules
  • offer reduced rate fares the day of the flight to fill empty flights with flexible travelers

Finally, one commenter suggests that, at the very least, passengers on international connections should not be bumped because of these flights are more expensive and more difficult to change.

Treatment of Zero Fare Tickets

All commenters who address the issue agree that zero-fare ticket holders should be compensated if bumped, although there are different views of the appropriate form.

The majority say that these passengers should get frequent flyer miles because that is how they paid for the ticket; proposals include double the miles the passenger paid or, recognizing that these travelers may have bumping-related expenses that miles will not address, miles plus cash to cover lodging and food.  Three commenters say that the bumped zero-fare ticket holder should have be given the option of miles or cash compensation; one proposal for the latter would use two times the prevailing market price at the time of the flight.

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