Aviation rules have been thrust into the spotlight recently after United Airlines involuntarily, publicly and forcibly, removed a paying passenger from an aircraft. So, what happened and what actually are your rights when it comes to flying?
You’ve booked your ticket, you’ve checked in for your flight, your bags are tagged and you’re about to board … the unfortunate fact is, you can still be bumped from your flight right up to the time the aircraft has departed as was the case with several United Airlines customers in Chicago recently.
Passengers were offered compensation to voluntarily give-up their seats on the flight to accommodate a crew that was required to work a flight out of the destination city.
When the required number of volunteers was not found, passengers were involuntarily removed in order to make way for the flight crew.
While the over-selling of flights is a common occurrence, the way it’s handled is typically uneventful – that was until the unfortunate episode we witnessed recently. Airlines don’t always get it right. In this case, they seem to have got it very wrong.
Why were passengers pulled from the flight?
Last week, United was faced with two scenarios.
- Inconvenience four passengers to make way for a flight crew that was required to operate a flight at an alternate city, OR
- Not board the crew as passengers and then jeopardise schedules down the line. Choosing this option would have resulted in several flight cancellations with hundreds of passengers in other cities affected.
For the airline, as well as for passengers, neither scenario is ideal but the decision must be made.
Airlines always want to minimise inconvenience to their passengers. But there are times where they must make certain operational considerations, as United did, by not wanting to cancel other flights in its system.
Did the airline have the right to remove passengers from that flight as per the terms and conditions of carriage? It does seem so. Did United handle the situation in the best way possible? No, and as a result, the company is now paying the price literally and figuratively. United’s share price dropped sharply and the social media backlash has been swift and harsh.
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What are ‘Terms & Conditions’ of carriage?
Every airline has its own ‘conditions of carriage’ which means, in short, when you book a flight, you accept their terms and conditions along with any other rules that apply to the type of ticket you have purchased.
Here is where you can find the terms and conditions for Australia’s major airlines.
United’s woes came to light due to the common practise of overbooking that is meant to maximise both loads and profits. Airlines have always had to contend with a percentage of ‘no show’ passengers and when a seat goes empty, that naturally translates into lost revenue.
For this reason, airlines revenue-manage each and every seat. Today, revenue management is a highly-sophisticated ‘science’ with computer-modelling able to track, predict and monitor a series of criteria for every flight in the system.
Certain flight sectors and flight times will be overbooked as the airline’s historical data tells them when passengers are highly likely to change their flight at the last-minute (ie: business travellers running late/early), or, in many cases, just not show up for the flight.
Based on this modelling, an airline may sell more seats than what the aircraft has available. Sometimes though, they’re faced with a situation where all the passengers who have booked turn up for the flight. This is where ‘bumping’ comes in and ideally, it’s done on a voluntary basis.
How to avoid being bumped
Although not foolproof, there are ways to help minimise the chances of losing your seat.
First, it helps to know your rights when an airline oversells a flight. If you are bumped, there are legal obligations airlines must meet.
Compensation varies between carriers and can range from a refund of your fare, to accommodation, meals and transport. They may also offer other forms of compensation such as bonus frequent flyer points, upgrades or lounge access at their discretion.
Here are some important considerations before your next flight.
- Consider purchasing a full-fare economy ticket. Airlines are less likely to bump higher-fare paying passengers
- Add your frequent flyer number to the booking. The last guest an airline wants to inconvenience is a loyal frequent flyer.
- Check in as early as possible. The last to check-in, is often the first to be bumped.
- Purchase an extra leg-room seat. The more money you spend on the flight, the less likely you are to lose it.
- Purchase travel insurance to help with any out-of-pocket or additional expenses that are not covered by the airline bumping policy.
- Be courteous to the airport staff – remember it’s not their fault and they are doing their best to help you in a difficult situation.
What are airline compensation guidelines?
Airline compensation guidelines vary and are subject to change at any time. Rules will also vary depending on whether the situation was out of the airline’s control (such as weather) or not (maintenance issues etc).
Consumer advocate group CHOICE has compiled charts for Qantas, Virgin Australia, Jetstar and Tigerair in relation to their policies around re-accommodation and bumping of passengers.
Within the airline’s control
Examples may include an aircraft requiring maintenance or crew staffing issues.
Outside the airline’s control
Examples include bad weather delays or Air Traffic Control restrictions.
How to lodge a complaint
If you have been bumped from a flight for any reason, your first point of contact should be with the airline direct. Each airline has an additional customer service department that handles complaints by email or phone and is able to investigate further.
If you don’t think you have been fairly compensated by the airline, you can also contact the Airline Customer Advocate for further assistance.