The Odds of Being Bumped from a Flight

There will likely be fewer people flying over the Thanksgiving holidays compared to last year, but that doesn’t mean there will be plenty of room for everyone who wants to travel.

The Air Transport Association of America (ATA), the industry trade group for major US airlines, expects a 4% year-over-year decrease in passengers between Nov. 20 and Dec. 1. However, planes are still expected to be full because airlines, in response to economic pressures, have been cutting the number of flights. In fact, 2009 capacity reductions are the deepest since 1942, according to the ATA.

With many airlines also cutting prices to boost demand, some travelers may find themselves without a seat. Think of it as a grown-up version of musical chairs.

Airlines know some passengers will change their flight or miss it altogether, and they’re loath to leave seats unfilled because that means lost revenue. So they commonly sell more tickets than there are seats, betting that by flight time they’ll have a full plane, or close to it. But sometimes they misjudge and end up with a passenger surplus. That’s when passengers get “bumped.”

The odds an airline passenger will be bumped are rare at 1 in 872.2, and these odds include passengers that lose their seats voluntarily and involuntarily.

When airlines overbook flights, they first try to find passengers willing to give up their seats, enticing them with cash or discounts on future flights. This can be a great trade-off—spend a few hours reading Time or Cosmo and save $200 on your next vacation. The odds a passenger will be voluntarily bumped are 1 in 955.1.

Since there are almost always volunteers, forced bumping occurs far less often than voluntary bumping: The odds an airline passenger will be bumped against his or her will are 1 in 10,040.

Airlines can bump passengers involuntarily, as long as they follow US Department of Transportation regulations. These rules require them to pay passengers the cost of the ticket in cash (up to $400) and, at no extra cost, reschedule them on a flight that reaches their destination between one and two hours of the original flight time. If the delay is more than two hours, the cash maximum doubles to $800. (Airlines aren’t required to compensate bumped passengers if they deliver them within one hour of the original scheduled arrival time.)

The likelihood of being bumped varies widely by airline, and some have better track records with involuntary or voluntary bumping. The airlines with the best records, where passengers are least likely to be bumped involuntarily, are:

  • JetBlue (1 in 1,127,000)
  • Hawaiian Airlines (1 in 107,700)
  • AirTran Airways (1 in 47,000)
  • Alaska Airways (1 in 22,310)
  • Frontier Airlines (1 in 18,480)
  • Northwest Airlines (1 in 16,020)

Airlines where passengers are more likely to be bumped against their will are:

  • Comair (1 in 2,825)
  • Pinnacle Airlines (1 in 3,005)
  • Atlantic Southeast Airlines (1 in 3,016)
  • American Eagle Airlines (1 in 3,371)
  • ExpressJet Airlines (1 in 5,739)
  • US Airways (1 in 6,467)

Delta Airlines (1 in 7,061), Continental Airlines (1 in 7,620), and United Airlines (1 in 10,150) are all in the middle ground for involuntary bumping.

If you want to make some money or earn travel discounts by volunteering to give up your seat, try these airlines, which are likeliest to bump passengers voluntarily:

  • SkyWest (1 in 363.5)
  • Atlantic Southeast Airlines (1 in 445.7)
  • Comair (1 in 446.6)
  • Mesa Airlines (1 in 455.9)
  • United Airlines (1 in 534.2)
  • US Airways (1 in 618)
  • ExpressJet (1 in 642.4)
  • Pinnacle Airlines (1 in 746.3)
  • Northwest Airlines (1 in 883.7)

Although bumping is a rare feature of air travel, it’s becoming more common. According to the Wall Street Journal, the rate for the second quarter of 2009 was the highest in the last 14 years, and it was up 40 percent from the previous year.

The explanation given in the WSJ article is that airlines have eliminated flights to save money, which means more flights are overbooked. To compound the problem, passengers are now more reluctant to forfeit their seats voluntarily because airlines are offering less-generous vouchers and because fewer options are available for substitute flights.

So when might things get crazy for travelers this Thanksgiving? Based on sample data from the Thanksgiving 2008 period, the ATA predicts the four busiest travel days surrounding Thanksgiving Day this year in descending order will be Monday, Nov. 30, Sunday, Nov. 29, Friday, Nov. 20, and Wednesday, Nov. 25.

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