As United Airlines Controversy Dies Down, Groups Make Case for Overbooking

With the treatment of United Airlines passenger David Dao putting negative attention on airline practices, industry groups are making the case that the practice of overbooking—which is getting additional scrutiny as a result of the incident—has an important place.

Last week’s saga of United Express Flight 3411, in which a passenger was dragged out of his seat in favor of a United employee, has put a lot of attention on the airline’s evolving public relations.

It also drew attention to a common way that airlines attempt to maximize the value of their passenger planes: a process called overbooking, in which some flights are booked beyond capacity in the belief that someone will inevitably miss their flight.

Initially, reports stated that the flight with passenger David Dao was overbooked, but it turned out the airline decided it had to make room for aircraft crew needed in Louisville, Kentucky, the next day. (The handling of that specific need stoked a lot of debate, understandably; beyond the incident creating a series of hard-to-watch videos, Dao suffered a broken nose and concussion at the hands of airport police at Chicago O’Hare.)

Now, as the debate shifts away from the initial incident to what’s next, the International Air Transport Association is making the case in the wake of public criticism that overbooking does hold a place. In a policy statement released Thursday [PDF], IATA recommended that overbooking continue unabated, citing business, consumer, and environmental reasons.

“For consumers, this practice is beneficial because it allows more consumers to fly at the time, date, and fare of their choosing,” IATA explained. “We have all experienced the frustration of our preferred flight being sold out. Imagine if that were a regular occurrence, only to find out that there were empty seats on the plane?”

And while the group discourages involuntary booking denials, it realizes that they do happen very rarely (in 0.09 percent of cases).

“Airlines make their best efforts to secure a sufficient amount of volunteers, so there is no need to deny any passenger boarding involuntarily,” the association said. “If, however, not enough volunteers come forward, IATA recognizes the right to rerouting, assistance, and proportionate compensation to those passengers involuntarily denied boarding, so passengers are adequately looked after in these uncommon and stressful situations.”

The statement is a view shared by many airlines, along with the U.S. trade group Airlines for America (A4A), which told the Associated Press that overbooking saves costs for passengers. Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian, whose company is not an A4A member, suggested to the wire service that the real solution is proper planning, not regulation.

“I don’t think we need to have additional legislation to try to control how the airlines run their businesses,” Bastian told the AP. “The key is managing it before you get to the boarding process.”


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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