Despite the United furor, airlines are booting fewest passengers in decades

The New York skyline looms in the background as a United Airlines plane taxis at Newark Liberty International Airport on Wednesday, April 12, 2017, in Newark, N.J.
The New York skyline looms in the background as a United Airlines plane taxis at Newark Liberty International Airport on Wednesday, April 12, 2017, in Newark, N.J. AP

Last year saw the lowest level of passengers involuntarily denied boarding on major U.S. airlines in 27 years, according to an annual review of airline quality.

That may come as a surprise to a flying public that witnessed the spectacle of a passenger being violently removed from a United flight in Chicago last Sunday.

Even United, whose reputation and stock price have plummeted in the wake of the incident, denied boarding last year at a rate lower than the industry average.

According to the Airline Quality Rating, calculated by Embry Riddle Aeronautical University and Wichita State University, the industry’s numbers for passengers denied boarding are the best since they began keeping track of them in 1991.

Airlines involuntarily bumped 40,629 passengers in 2016, according to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics. That’s out of nearly 660 million passengers, a rate of 0.62 per 10,000.

United bumped 3,765 passengers out of nearly 87 million, or 0.43 per 10,000, better than rivals American and Southwest, at 0.64 and 0.99, respectively.

Displaced passengers are entitled to compensation that maxes out at $1,350, and they can request checks instead of vouchers.

A reason for the plunge in booted passengers appears to be an increase in compensation amounts in 2015 and a change that adjusts those amounts for inflation.

Charlie Leocha, the chairman and founder of Travelers United, an airline-passenger advocacy group that played a role in getting those changes, said the increased compensation had lowered the number of passengers involuntarily denied boarding.

“That has made a big difference,” he said.

Still, Leocha said, the low number of involuntary displacements doesn’t tell the whole story. As airlines have routinely oversold flights in an effort to squeeze out excess capacity and boost their profits, more passengers are being asked to give up their seats voluntarily.

“The solution is to make sure passengers and airline personnel know the rules and follow them,” he said.

The latest Airline Quality Rating numbers were released Monday, right as United was in the middle of a public relations meltdown over the issue. The irony was not lost on Dean Headley, an assistant professor of marketing at Wichita State University who’s one of the yearly review’s authors.

“United was one of the better ones in the industry,” he said. “Yet on Sunday, things went to hell.”

Last Sunday, United 3411 from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky, was already boarded and full when four United employees asked to board so they could get to their next assignment. The flight’s crew sought volunteers to be bumped, offering them first $400 in credit, then $800.

When there were no takers, four passengers were randomly selected. Three complied, but David Dao, a Kentucky doctor, did not. In cellphone videos now seen by millions around the world, Chicago Department of Aviation Police dragged Dao from his seat as shocked passengers watched.

Dao sustained a concussion and a broken nose, and he lost two teeth. His attorney said Thursday that he would likely sue United.

Headley said the incident had brought the issue of involuntary displacement to the forefront. Passengers may not know their rights or what the airline is required to provide.

Individual airlines can offer more than $1,350 if they choose. On Friday, The Associated Press reported that Delta Air Lines was giving airport supervisors the option to offer passengers up to $9,950 in compensation if they’re asked to give up their seats.

Delta has one of the lowest rates of passengers involuntary denied boarding in the industry, at 0.10 per 10,000 passengers last year, according to the Airline Quality Rating.

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis