Last week, United made spectacular headlines by dragging a passenger off one of their planes to make room for their crew. They initially claimed that this was a case of “denied boarding” after “overbooking” their flight. While that turned out to be false, it did put the spot light on the practice of overbooking flights – and United is not the worst offender in denying boarding on their flights, Delta Airline is. Find the facts in my analysis below!
All around the world, airlines overbook their flights because they have learned that some travelers won’t show up for their flight and they’d rather not fly with empty seats. After much lobbying, the big US airlines have managed to avoid strong consumer protections in the US, and it is legal to deny passengers boarding, despite holding a valid ticket, in case of an overbooked flight. They have to offer some compensation in an effort to find passengers to volunteer their seat (“voluntary denied boarding”), but if they can’t find volunteers, they can deny passengers boarding and pay a government regulated compensation for doing so (“involuntary denied boarding”) and put those passengers on a future flight. They also deny boarding for operational issues or for their own crew, like in the United case, because the poor consumer protection makes it cheaper to do that then to find another solution (like booking their staff on another airline or sending a bigger plane).
While United took a lot of heat for their incident, other airlines like Delta tried to position themselves in a better light – but Delta is actually one of the worst offenders! I analyzed the latest Air Travel Consumer Report of the U.S. Department of Transportation to find out the facts!
Delta has the highest rate of all major airlines for denied boardings at more than 10 per 10,000 passengers. United (7.7) and Southwest (6.9) are not much better. Hawaiian Airlines is significantly better with only 0.3 denied boardings for every 10,000 passengers.
It is interesting to note that Delta only has a rate of 0.096 “involuntary denied boarding”, second best after Hawaiian. They have a system in place to handle the compensation offers to find enough volunteers, so they don’t have to “involuntary deny boarding”! They clearly have done the math that it is cheaper overbook at a high rate and to pay people to give up their seats than flying with empty seats or putting their staff on other planes. They also have optimized the type of compensation they hand out: Delta has the lowest cash-payouts of all the major airlines and gives out travel vouchers (which might expire before you can use them or gift cards instead)!
While having a low rate of “involuntary denied boarding” is better than having a high one, I’m not much of a gambler and rather be sure to fly as scheduled, than having to rely on somebody else being willing to take compensation to give up their seat. I prefer to fly an airline like Hawaiian that can have overall low figures of denied boarding, have great customers satisfaction – and still make a profit!
The worst offenders on either score are Skywest and Expressjet – two regional airlines that handle short-haul flights for Delta, United and American Airlines, making the record of the US3 legacy airlines even worse! A lot of the recent incidents indeed have been on these regional carriers. The US3 are using them for lower labor and operational costs that also bring worse service with them!
When you chose an airline for your travel, price and schedule are at the top of the criteria for most travelers. I do recommend to also consider the travel experience – and that includes your chances to travel on time and arrive with your luggage. It pays to see whether a mainline carrier or regional airline is operating your flight and which of the airlines you travel with. Giving the smaller airlines, like Hawaiian, JetBlue, Virgin or Alaska, a try might give you a different experience when flying in the US. Or trying a foreign carrier for international travel!
Come back to read more about your rights when being denied boarding, as well as your chances to arrive on time and with your luggage!
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