Bumping is Back: Federal Data Show More Airline Passengers Denied Boarding

'Basic Economy' fare and late check-in travelers most likely to be bumped

What to Know

  • Airlines are denying boarding to more passengers on overbooked flights, a practice also known as "bumping"
  • More than 13,000 passengers were bumped in the first six months of this year; that's more than all of 2018
  • Airlines blame labor disputes, loss of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft for increased bumping; critics say it's more about profits over passengers


Visit the U.S. DOT for the latest federal rules.

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Following a highly-publicized incident in which a passenger was physically dragged off of a flight to provide a seat for an airline employee, air carriers reduced the practice of "bumping" passengers from overbooked flights.

But an NBC Bay Area analysis of federal aviation data finds Involuntary Denied Boarding, or "bumping," never actually stopped. And it's shot up significantly this year.

You may remember the April 2017 removal of Dr. David Dao from a United Airlines Express flight originating in Chicago. The situation was caught on video by passengers:

Officials in the northern Mexico border state of Coahuila said Tuesday they have closed a shelter in the border city of Piedras Negras where about 1,600 Central American migrants had been confined during the past two weeks. Many of the migrants have been bused to neighboring states, leading to complaints that Coahuila was dumping migrants on other cities to clear out the camp at an empty factory building.

Dr. Dao had a paid seat, but airport officers removed him from the flight after the airline decided to give his seat to a crew member.

The episode made international headlines in 2017. But in a recent visit to Mineta San Jose International Airport, travelers we spoke with didn't remember Dr. Dao -- until we showed them the video.

"That level of human treatment is never right," said Ruchira, a passenger heading to Oregon with her sons.

After the Dr. Dao incident stirred the flying public, many domestic carriers publicly changed their policies. Among them was Southwest Airlines.

"The last thing we want to do is deny a customer their flight," said Southwest CEO Gary Kelly in an interview with CNBC, just days after the Dr. Dao incident. "The company's made the decision that we will cease to overbook, going forward."

By 2018, the number of passengers involuntarily taken off a flight fell more than 65%. But an NBC Bay Area review of federal data found that "bumping" is now bouncing back.

NBC Bay Area

The U.S. Department of Transportation data shown here cover the first six months of 2019. In that time, airlines bumped 13,104 paying passengers -- more than all of 2018.

We asked airlines: why the jump in bumps?

American Airlines, which bumped the most passengers -- 8,760 per federal data -- pointed to two problems: a labor dispute that disrupted its schedule, and a shortage of planes due to the Boeing 737 MAX being grounded.

Southwest Airlines, which bumped 2,525 over the first six months of the year, blamed various "operational challenges," including the Boeing 737 MAX.

Those reasons seem to conflict with information on both airlines' websites, where they say passengers previously scheduled for flights on 737 MAX aircraft will be "proactively notified" or "automatically accommodated."

Federal data show that passengers are still being blindsided at the gate, and denied their seats.

Andrew Applebaum, an attorney with the air traveler advocacy group, says he suspects airlines still haven't fully reduced ticket sales to match their smaller fleets.

"We don't buy the airlines' argument that the increased number of Involuntary Denied Boardings is due to the Boeing MAX situation," Applebaum told NBC Bay Area.

"The airlines' motivation is pure profit," Applebaum said. "They're able to sell more tickets. If a passenger has to be bumped, the passenger is entitled to a small amount of compensation. That's worth it to the airlines."

Southwest Airlines told us its team "strives for zero [bumping] each day."

American Airlines said it has been bumping fewer passengers since the summer ended. It pointed us to a statement in which CEO Doug Parker discussed the airline's performance so far in 2019 -- including the schedule disruptions. "We are taking decisive action to correct this," Parker said. He also said he is "...excited about our prospects for 2020."

The Airlines say they generally need to overbook flights to account for 'no-shows' -- passengers who cancel or miss their flight. But when everyone shows up to come aboard, someone's got to go. So, how do airlines decide who gets bumped?

Their exact formulas are proprietary, so we searched their ticket contracts for clues.

Some airlines consider how much you paid for your seat when choosing who to bump. If you buy the cheapest fare -- sometimes sold as "basic economy" -- you might be the first to go, so the airline can give your seat to someone else who paid a higher fare.

Something else that stands out: your check-in time is crucial. The last passengers to check in can be the first ones bumped. So, if you want to keep your seat, check in as early as possible.

If all else fails and you're pulled from a flight, federal law says you're entitled to compensation. How much you get hinges on the ticket price, and how long it takes the airline to get you to your destination. The maximum payment, by law, is $1,350 cash. But you can ask for more -- perhaps in airline vouchers or gift cards if you volunteer to give up your seat. You might be able to negotiate as a volunteer. Click here to see how federal law dictates the amounts airlines must pay you if you ultimately get bumped.

One final note: if you get bumped and the airline re-books you on a flight that gets you to your destination within an hour of the original scheduled time, you may not get anything. Keep that in mind when the call for volunteers comes up at the gate.

Pro tip: bookmark this NBC Bay Area story in your phone's web browser, so you can pull it up any time you face bumping on an upcoming flight!

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