3 of the Largest US Airlines Have Announced Changes to How They Handle Denied Boarding (And One Hasn’t)

The US airline industry was rocked by public backlash after a passenger was dragged off a United flight from Chicago to Louisville on Sunday night. The airline sought to involuntarily deny boarding to him after he was already in his seat, in order to move crew to Louisville so they could work another flight. He refused to give up his seat, Chicago Aviation Police were called, and they reacted forcefully breaking his nose, busting two teeth, and giving him a concussion.

Now airlines are adapting their policies as a result. While involuntary denied boarding are increasingly rare, a similar situation could have happened to another carrier. They all:

  • Want to avoid a similar situation happening on one of their planes
  • Want to have a public relations answer to this incident
  • Want to forestall new government regulation

Here’s what we know so far about changes to denied boarding policies.

Delta is Empowering Employees to Compensate Passengers

A leaked Delta memo confirmed yesterday that the airline is increasing the discretion that airline personnel have in compensating passengers.

  • Gate agents had been limited to $800, and supervisors could go higher up to $2000
  • Now gate agents will be able to go up to $2000 on their own authority if they have to, and supervisors will be able to offer $9950 in any given extreme case.

This will not mean more compensation for most passengers being asked to volunteer to get off a flight. Instead it means that when there aren’t enough volunteers, agents have the ability to do more.

There were only 326 times during the fourth quarter that Delta involuntarily denied boarding to passengers, and in most cases they paid out substantial compensation already. An agent will be able to raise the amount being offered, which should reduce the number down below where it currently stands. And since it’s so rare to begin with this change shouldn’t be very costly to the airline.

American Airlines Will No Longer Remove Passengers That Have Already Boarded

American Airlines has updated its contract of carriage section on ‘oversales’. They now say, “American will not involuntarily remove a revenue passenger who has already boarded in order to give a seat to another passenger.”

It’s not obvious exactly what is different morally once a passenger has scanned their boarding pass, placed their bags in the overhead bin, and buckled up. But it clearly feels very different to people to be asked to leave a plane versus being told they cannot board a flight. So American has pre-committed now not to take people off involuntarily when they don’t have enough seats to accommodate all passengers with confirmed reservations.

In other words, possession becomes ten tenths of American’s law – trumping other passengers who may not yet have boarded who paid more, have higher status, or checked in earlier but lack a seat (or as sometimes happens, who had a seat but the gate agent gave it away perhaps earlier than they should have).

United Will No Longer Call the Cops on Passengers Sitting in Their Seats… Maybe

On Wednesday morning United CEO Oscar Munoz went on television and said “We’re not going to put a law enforcement official… to remove a booked, paid, seated passenger” anymore.

However on Thursday United put out a statement that walked that back a bit. They now say they “will not ask law enforcement officers to remove passengers from our flights unless it is a matter of safety and security.” (Emphasis mine.)

Of course a culture has developed across US airlines where disagreeing with a crew member is considered ‘disruptive’ and ‘out of an abundance of caution’ law enforcement is called. Once a crew member expresses concern, the captain is often ‘uncomfortable flying with the passenger on board’ and so the passenger is removed. The ‘safety and security’ carve out, while at some level understandable in the face of real threats, renders the policy statement meaningless.

What’s needed is greater responsibility for customer service, and a commitment not to turn customer service issues into law enforcement issues. They need to build an internal understanding of what the difference is, and train accordingly.

United will also be announcing other new policies ‘by April 30’.

Southwest Airlines is Strangely Silent

On the one hand it’s understandable that Southwest Airlines has kept largely quiet during the media firestorm over a passenger being dragged off a United flight. Why put themselves in the firing line when they aren’t already?

On the other hand, Southwest Airlines carries nearly as many passengers as United. And Southwest Airlines has been involuntarily denying boarding to the most passengers by far. In the fourth quarter of 2016:

  • United involuntarily bumped 891 passengers
  • Delta involuntarily bumped 326 passengers
  • Southwest involuntarily bumped over 3000 passengers

As of this writing there’s nothing on the Southwest Airlines press release page and I haven’t uncovered any statements or stories uncovering a change. I don’t believe I’m missing anything here but would love to be corrected.

Southwest should make clear what it’s policies will be going forward — whether they will keep or change their current approach.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. “It’s not obvious exactly what is different morally once a passenger has scanned their boarding pass, placed their bags in the overhead bin, and buckled up. But it clearly feels very different to people to be asked to leave a plane versus being told they cannot board a flight.”

    Really? You don’t see a very distinct moral line between possessing something and having it removed from you with force and never gaining access to something in the first place? It’s almost like you’re being willfully obtuse.

  2. Gary, perhaps Southwest is silent because there is no “Southwest Express”–unlike United Express, American Eagle and Delta Connection. Why is that important? It’s important since Southwest can actually do what it says it will do because it’s not at the mercy of Republic or Mesa or SkyWest, etc.

    While the announcements from AA and DL that you mention in your post are all fine and good, it doesn’t appear those carriers are speaking for their “express” flights, but likely just their own “mainline” flights. Why wouldn’t they make those same promises for “express” flights? Likely because they can’t. As I pointed out in my post to your “death threat” a couple days ago, Republic for the most part controls those planes and the crew rules/contracts of their employees who fly/commute to/from their bases on them. So AA, DL, and UA can make all the pronouncements they want, but their pronouncements don’t change Republic’s crew contracts–and to be clear, all 3 majors “codeshare” with Republic. So when AA says they won’t remove a passenger for another passenger, that’s all fine and good. It doesn’t change the facts Of this week’s situation, though, in which a passenger was removed for a Republic crew member, whose reasons for travel that day remain unclear.

    I’m not saying the majors won’t try to improve their policies and practices. I’m sure they will. Unfortunately, however, writers and bloggers seem to keep ignoring that this plane was operated by a carrier (Republic) that has different rules and contracts than United. Unless or until UA, AA and DL cease relying on other carriers for these flights, not sure they can ever really control the situation fully.

  3. “American will not involuntarily remove a revenue passenger who has already boarded in order to give a seat to another passenger.”

    That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t remove a passenger to give the seat to a crew member so it wouldn’t explicitly prevent what happened at United.

  4. Southwest is silent because this doesn’t happen on Southwest: there are no assigned seats! I fly SWA all the time – you know what I’ve never seen? Two people with the same boarding number! It doesn’t happen – once you are on a SWA flight, OF COURSE you have a seat – any seat, pick a seat! And if you are the last person to board – tough luck. Everyone understands this intuitively, there is no issue because “possession” of a SWA seat doesn’t exist.
    And also, SWA to me is a much more common-sense airline. Yes there is A-list but there is no first class, no sense of entitlement, their road warrior travelers are literal warriors (not pampered elite). And the gate agents (all of whom are mainline employees) seem empowered to use common sense.
    And unfortunate that UAL had to back off their statement – but you do need to remove actual insane people from the plane sometimes. Unfortunately you’re right, “safety and security” means “I said something the FA didn’t like, now the cops are on board.”

  5. @Jon – I’m not saying there isn’t a moral difference, just that I think it’s kind of a complicated question how much it matters.

  6. There is no need to promise not to remove passengers after all some may genuinely be crazy cough cough pet owners.
    However lets make a rule that if a person is removed than the Flight Attendant also has to deboard and give testimony to law enforcement. We will see only genuine removals as it removals will hurt operational efficiency not help it so they WILL be limited to safety issues.

    Second deal with overbooking or must fly situations by paying in cash enough to go buy a walk up fare at a competing flight at the same airport. If no competing flight available handle this during checkin. DUring checkin ask people if they are in a must fly situation. If so offer them an opportunity to pay a “Confirmed Boarding fee” which would be the difference between their ticket price and a last minute walk up fare. People who genuinely cannot be delayed will pay. This will balance revenue wise the higher IDB compensation the airline has to pay. Than prioritize checkin by only providing seat assignments to folks who must fly, have paid Y fares or full first class fares, must flys, unaccompanied minors, handicapped and groups travelling together. For the rest only assign seats at the gate 30 minutes before the flight so that you only board what you have space for. Not having an assigned seat also means that people will be more eager to VDB as they havnt formed the association that they have a seat.

  7. Southwest bumping 3000 passengers? There better be a damn good explanation why they are bumping that many people especially compared to the rest of the industry.

  8. Actually I think the “new” VDB compensation has been in practice for awhile. Evidence is the Laura Begley Bloom story on Forbes.com. She was paid over $11,000, mostly in American Express gift cards, not future travel credits. If people knew they were to compensated in gift cards that act like cash, well no wonder Delta has such a low IDB rate.

  9. “American will not involuntarily remove a revenue passenger who has already boarded in order to give a seat to another passenger.”

    “revenue passenger” means it was paid for with real money and/or miles, correct? What is official definition of “revenue” and does each carrier have their own definition or is there a federal definition?

    “to another passenger” but it doesn’t say to a crew member or employee, so it still leaves the original issue murky. That is how that whole thing started, NOT because it was overbooked. I have said that in all my previous posts. What is the official definition of “passenger”?

  10. I’m guessing SW denies boarding to more people because its tickets are exchangeable and thus much more flexible, making it harder to determine how many people will truly fly on any given flight. I’d be happy to exchange a higher but still very small risk of being denied boarding for that flexibility.

  11. United involuntarily bumped 891 passengers
    Delta involuntarily bumped 326 passengers
    Southwest involuntarily bumped over 3000 passengers

    Do the first two numbers include Republic, etc.? If not, they are, you know, useless.

    Sorry if I missed something.

  12. These are all just empty promises coming from professional liars. DOT regulation is the only solution, for exactly the same reason as the tarmac delay rule. Airline personnel cannot be trusted to do the right thing unless there is a clear directive in the form of a regulation.

    Southwest is incredibly cheap when it comes to VDB compensation due to the fact that many of their fares are low. So on a $59 ticket they’d rather pay $240 (4x fare) for IDB than offer a voucher for $250 VDB. Another reason that IDB comp needs to be raised.

  13. MillionMiler is right. The Contract of Carriage on United’s website has explicit exceptions to their Refusal to Transport rules. The rules of the partners such as Republic will apply on any flight operated by them, superceding United’s rules. So United is merely exercising its smoke and mirrors prerogative here, nothing more. What has changed? Zilch.

  14. Even accounting for Republic, etc not showing, Southwest’s high number is surprising given almost all their aircraft are 737’s so there’s no substituting smaller aircraft.

  15. As asked above. Let’s have the airlines define paid passenger. Does that include frequent flyer miles, with frequent miles you earned those Mike’s plus paid a processing fee for the ticket.
    Say I am flying with multiple connections (2 or more) and there is a short time window between flights, I chose my seat or seats when I booked months in advance, checked in online 24-48 hours in advance. Then there is a short time spance between connectors and I get to the get in the middle of end of boarding??? Which happened to me but never been bumoped. But are you saying that now I am at greater risk of being bumped???

    Seriously, I am interested to see how this plays out over the next couple of years. Because I have miles banked and will be booking 3 (a family of three flying together) round trips from Ohio to Philippines is 2019.

  16. “The rules of the partners such as Republic will apply on any flight operated by them, superceding United’s rules. So United is merely exercising its smoke and mirrors prerogative here, nothing more. What has changed? Zilch.”

    Remembering that UA3411 was operated by Republic, what’s the likelihood that Republic will not promptly amend their CoC to match UA’s on this? Zilch.

  17. I would think that Delta, and other code sharing and name brand carriers, will be offering passengers flights on alternative airlines, instead of $10,000 vouchers or gift cards. For instance, you want to fly Chicago to Atlanta. Long before they offer you $10,000, they offer you $200 cash and a similar seat or upgraded seat with similar arrival time, on AA or even UA (ouch). Their IDB number will drop to 2 or 3 per day.
    Conveniently, Southwest is left out of the equation, and without any chance of violating Antitrust laws since it is for the good of the passengers.
    I still predict UA CEO Munoz, will be replaced by Monday 4/18, which is sad because he probably has a much better understanding of how important the customer is.

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