Bumping airline passengers: there’s gotta be a better way

Anzeigetafel im Flughafenterminal
Flying United Airlines earlier this month was anything but a unifying experience.
My wife and I were booked on a flight from Maui to San Francisco. A half-hour or so before it was to leave, gate officials told us that, because of headwinds and other factors, the plane was too heavy and that they needed 20 passengers to volunteer to take other flights.
Their offer? A measly $200 U.S. Most passengers around me shook their heads, and the offer was soon upped to $500. Even then, only a few folks took the bait. I thought they’d wait for more volunteers, but instead they began boarding. Once we were seated, flight attendants said they were still far short of the 20-person goal and that the offer was now $700.
I thought about it, but we had an appointment to meet and couldn’t take the chance on waiting for another flight. After a 75-minute delay the pilot came on the intercom and told us that they hadn’t received enough volunteers. Unfortunately, some passengers had to be left at the gate (presumably with some compensation).
This wasn’t an issue of bumping because the airline had overbooked. This was a matter of safety. Of course I don’t blame United for wanting to lighten the plane to battle unexpected headwinds and give us enough fuel to make it San Francisco. I’m rather fond of safe arrivals. But surely the airline would have had more responses and people would’ve been more inclined to see the airline as reasonable if they had started at $400 or $500.
It was an interesting experience. But passengers headed from Toronto to Newark, N.J., on a Porter Airlines flight last October had a better story to tell.
Sven Lindblad, founder and president of travel company Lindblad Expeditions, was heading to New York on Porter but his plane was delayed for takeoff because of bad weather at the Toronto Island Airport. Unlike my experience, however, Lindblad’s flight had already boarded all of its passengers. As a result, Porter said it needed six people to get off the plane and offered $200 for volunteers. Nobody bit. (Do I sense a pattern here?)
When the offer was raised to $300, two people left, Lindblad recalled. Crew members then announced that they would have to take four people off the plane, and that would be done based on who had paid the lowest fares. “The two Porter staff started identifying people like out of a lineup, ‘You, you, you, and you’ and marched these people off. Everyone was kind of in shock,” Lindbland said. “Porter has this nice reputation and they were behaving like this big airline.” He added that the pilot came out and apologized personally to folks who got to stay on board. Like me, Lindblad wondered if the whole thing could have been avoided if the airline had initially offered more than $200 for the inconvenience of being bumped.
Porter Airlines spokesman Brad Cicero told me he did not have specific details of Lindblad’s flight, but said Porter’s airport crew must have felt the plane was going to be safe to fly when they allowed people to get on board (versus the more standard policy of asking for volunteers at the gate, prior to boarding).
On rare occasions, however, the airline has to remove passengers for safety reasons or bad weather, he said. “They would’ve asked for volunteers and given a certain amount of compensation. When you do that, you’re not asking people not to travel at all but to take the next flight. In many cases people can still fly [that same day] … so I think $200 is not unreasonable in a case like that,” Cicero said.
Bumping people from a flight based on the fare and having a flight crew walk down the aisle of a plane and removing that in such a public fashion might seem heavy-handed, but Cicero said customers would likely complain just as much if passengers were picked at random. “You need to use some basis if you get into a situation of involuntary removal,” he said, noting that Porter takes into account if someone is travelling with a child or if they have a connecting flight.
United officials could not be reached for comment about the circumstances on my flight.
A spokesman for Air Canada noted that weather conditions can change at the last minute and that it’s conceivable passengers have to be taken off a plane. “Normally we remove cargo first if that option is available,” Peter Fitzpatrick said in an e-mail.
Choosing which passengers have to leave a plan based on the fare they paid seems harsh, but it’s legal. And it happens.

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