Is more airline bumping going unreported, and uncompenstated?


A traveler in her early twenties was flying from Washington to Chicago for an interview. We had been unable to obtain a seat assignment, however we had a confirmed reservation. The client called from the airport and asked if we could help her get on a flight later that day.

When I asked if she missed the flight, the client explained she had checked in over an hour in advance, been told they couldn’t accommodate her as the flight was oversold, but would try to get her out later as a standby. I saw a seat on a flight leaving in an hour and booked it. I suggested that the traveler return to the check-in desk. At that point apparently the airline gave her a boarding pass — but nothing more.

Here’s another story. A client was checking in without a seat assignment, and was asked if they could put her on a later flight with a seat assignment. No mention was made of compensation. She said no, and called to see what to do. We told her to stay put, make sure she was within hearing distance of the gate, and that the airline should give her a seat 30 minutes prior. Which they did. In fact, it was a premium economy seat.

A third client was on a early nonstop flight from San Francisco to Washington, Dulles, Sunday morning. The plane had a mechanical problem and returned to the gate. After an hour, the airline advised the passengers that they had a new plane, but it would be smaller and they wouldn’t be able to accommodate everyone.

The client contacted me at home and asked for ideas. I gave him a couple connecting flights choices that were open on other airlines (the airline was sold out all day even with connections). I suggested he ask to be on the nonstop, but failing that be put on a competitor so he could make it to D.C.

In the end, that the airline told him they could not put him on the nonstop (almost certainly because he was not an elite-level flier), but they accepted the second option, and changed his ticket. I asked if they had given him anything else, and he said, “No, but they had seemed harassed and overwhelmed.”

Since the new flight was leaving shortly, the only option at that point was to have him contact customer service through the airline’s Web site and note that he is hoping for compensation. The second client made it on her flight, so it wasn’t an issue in the end, but she confirmed that they offered her a seat assignment on a later flight, with no offer of money or a voucher at all. The first client, however, decided not to pursue anything as she got there just about two hours late, and “doesn’t like to make trouble.”

What do these incidents have in common, other than that none of these clients were compensated? All of these flights were on United Airlines.

My sense is that these missed connection are more a result of overworked airport personnel than deliberate airline policy, but for travelers who are not aware of their rights, such uncompensated changes probably total a fair amount of money for the airlines involved.

For air travelers, however, as we go into the busy summer season, it probably means being extra vigilant, both about checking in on time, and (politely) asking for compensation when bumped. (Taking it out on airport personnel who have probably had their pay and hours cut already is never a good idea.)

In cases where there’s really not enough time to argue and also make to a backup flight, the best solution is to get on the plane, but keep every piece of information you have, the name of who you spoke to, the details on the original and new flight, and the total length of the delay. Armed with that, you have a better chance of getting denied boarding compensation after the fact.

Also, while on most flights I can find an aisle or window at some point before the departure, I have started confirming middle seats when there is no alternative, instead of leaving just a request in the record. And I would advise travelers booking direct to do the same thing. If you check in on time, they may not be able to improve your seat, but they can’t give it away either.

And here’s a question for readers: Have you noticed any case of these uncompensated bumpings, or attempted bumpings, when flying lately? Sometimes it’s hard to know whether the stories you hear are just from the world’s unluckiest people, or if it’s an epidemic problem.

  • Wrona

    I know that a few weeks ago, when almost every flight from my home airport was oversold, yes they were bumping people but all the airlines were giving compensation. In fact, most of the people I met that had been bumped seemed happy about it.

  • The man who notices things

    Well, the regulations do not REQUIRE the airline to specifically inform the person they have been bumped . . . and what does bumping actually mean? I’m sure United has not educated its gate staff about rules that make it pay money.

    Gate agents change jobs – frequently. Who would want that job if they could get something else? So, ‘due to turnover, we regret our training has not been as thorough as we would like it to be,’ even though the lack of training is only in areas that cost the airline money, while all the fees have probably been trained to death.

    What is the answer? Why would anyone tell a customer “oops, sorry, our fault, we have to pay you some money?” Be serious here.

  • aliiien

    Preach to the choir. United has a (four-letter-word) track record with compensation/service; I’ve had more than my share of “flying the friendly skies” with them, as well as my family.

    Case in point: back in 2005, my mother & I went to Paris for a week – she paid for both tickets. Since I was planning on staying for a year but it wouldn’t be entirely official until I got to France, my ticket was round-trip as well, just in case. Well, I stayed, Mom left, and not only did United fill the seat in my name (that, again, SHE paid for), they wouldn’t refund the cost of the seat to my mother. So essentially she paid for two seats and only got one – as well as the other person paying for that seat?!

    I wish I could run a business like that.. have two cookies, make three people pay for them, and then say sorry I only have two… and keep the third person’s money.

  • Scott

    The alien’s comment has NOTHING to do with bumping. If you buy a non-refundable ticket, guess what? It’s non-refundable! Who woulda thunk it??? You probably paid LESS buying the round-trip than you would have buying a one-way ticket, so again, stop your whining. You agreed to the rules of the ticket when you purchased it, then decided you don’t like the rules, then complain. It’s never *your* fault, we understand.

    I have to think that the cases above are unfortunately isolated cases. Lately, with the ridiculous booking levels the “experts” in inventory management have been leaving the airport staff, there have been tons of denied boardings. Of course, there tend to be less volunteers when the planes are filled with families on pre-arranged vacations.

    Actually, gate agents change jobs less than others at the airport. They tend to be more senior. Of course, they may also be more numb after the pay cuts and treatment of the last eight years, especially.

    I recently had a family volunteer off an oversold London flight. After working to get the flight out while simultaneously arranging their new flights, seats and hotel, I realized after we all left the gate area that I never gave them the credit we agreed to. Fortunately, I was able to grab them and do so. There are a lot of things going on, and in these situations, some people are not the most calm. Things can get overlooked, but I imagine it is unintended.

    Airline personnel certainly has ZERO investment in not giving out the compensation for denied boardings. In fact, many give too much.

    Just remember, the people working to accommodate you never CAUSE the situation, but are simply the ones left to deal with it. Screaming at them, being nasty, etc. will NEVER help you. In fact, trust me, it will make it worse for you. Plus, we know, everyone HAS to be on the flight.

  • aliiien

    Um, my comment had to do with United. As Janice wrote, all three bumping incidents had to do with UNITED. So I wanted to put in my two cents showing that United was, indeed, not exactly customer-friendly! Get off your high horse.

    In addition, how on earth do you know what type of ticket – flexible or non-refundable, etc – my mother purchased? You don’t! Again, get off it; you’re making assumptions that give you no credit whatsoever. My bottom line is that my mother did NOT get what she paid for – she got less, and United’s customer service/policy/whatever sector wasn’t up to snuff.

    Since when is getting less than what you paid for – and, as you so nicely stated, agreed to the rules on – acceptable? Do you ever pay for a burger and only get half? And while on that tangent, bumping is similar: yes, we all know airlines overbook, it’s a travel-industry-wide practice that’s essential for revenue (I’m in the hotel business so I’m not walking blind here, thank you), but when you buy flight tickets, you have to buy them FOR A SPECIFIC DEPARTURE TIME. No one ever buys tickets that say “Your departure time is at our discretion – good luck!” Involuntary bumping SHOULD be compensated for that reason.

  • David Z

    Hmm, are we talking flights under United’s ticket stock? Or those where the passenger flies United on their departure, returns via, say, Lufthansa, but the ticket’s under the latter?

  • Bodega

    aliien, if your mother was not allowed a refund, she then purchased a ticket with restrictions, that is what Scott was referencing. If you purchase a nonrefundable roundtrip ticket and do not use the return, you do not qualify for a refund on the unused portion.

    A ticket that allows a years stay is more expensive that the normal 90 day excurison nonrefundable ticket unless you are a student or a teacher, which would then you can purchased a ticket, valid for a year, often for less than the 90 day excursion nonrefundable ticket.

    Also, when you buy a roundtrip ticket, which if less than a oneway ticket, and don’t use the return, the airline can legally required the purchaser to pay the difference if the airline catches it. So basically you broke the airlines rule…which I don’t like either…so that really isn’t a customer service issue, it is the consumer not knowing the rules of the fare issued.