Prepare for takeoff: Overbooking, passenger bumping, and that United Airlines debacle


When United Airlines and law enforcement removed a passenger from a flight earlier this month, it sparked a PR disaster for the company.

But United is not the only airline that bumps passengers. Air travel consumer reports show this is an industry-wide issue.

There were over 40,000 involuntary deboardings out of nearly 660 million passengers in 2016, according to U.S. Department of Transportation statistics. That’s about 6 out of every 100,000 passengers.

At United, 3,765 passengers were involuntarily removed from flights in 2016, about 4 out of every 100,000.

United’s rate has actually improved in recent years, but other airlines including Spirit, JetBlue and Alaska each bumped more passengers in 2016 than the year before.

Overall, last year had the lowest rate for passengers denied boarding on flights of major airlines since 2011, an analysis of the DOT data by Peninsula Press shows.

Airlines remove thousands of passengers from planes each year for a variety of reasons, including overselling practices. Much like hotels, airlines book more passengers than they have the capacity to hold, counting on passengers to cancel or miss their flight.

Hawaiian Airlines maintained the lowest rate of passengers involuntarily removed from any U.S. airline in the most recent reports — less than one out of every 100,000 passengers in 2016.

Unlike United, JetBlue’s official policy is not to overbook flights. JetBlue’s rate of involuntary bumps had been low compared to other airlines, but from 2015 to 2016, it spiked from 73 passengers to 3,176 passengers. JetBlue’s corporate communications responded by email to a request for comment, saying that the increase “primarily reflect instances where flights scheduled to operate on our growing fleet of A321 aircraft have been changed to smaller A320 aircraft to accommodate needs like unplanned maintenance.”

JetBlue also said that it typically gives customers more than four hours advance notice.

Federal law protects airlines’ right to remove passengers, in exchange for vouchers or cash. It is unusual for passengers to get bumped after boarding the plane, like United passenger Dr. David Dao, aviation experts told multiple news outlets.

Dao’s lawyer and family recently held a press conference where they listed his injuries: a broken nose, a “significant concussion” and the loss of two front teeth, and said a lawsuit is likely.

In a statement, United CEO Oscar Munoz promised to “fix what’s broken so this never happens again.”

Meanwhile, while involuntary bumps remain rare, they also remain a concern to passengers flying the sometimes not-so-friendly skies.

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Story and data visualizations by Peninsula Press Reporters Ryanne Bamieh, Erica Evans, Nicholas Gailey, Anna Laman, Noemie Levy, Jackie Mogensen, Jane Nevins, Jacob Nierenberg, Nathaniel Okun, Sejin Paik, Thomas Plank, Christina Schiciano, Kelly Swanson and Aparna Verma.