Airlines have been nudging many more passengers lately

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The Wall Street Journal’s annual scorecard found that airlines encountered more fliers than the previous year and the comparable prepandemic period. This happens when more people are scheduled to fly than there are available seats.

The Journal’s ranking examined US Transportation Department data from October 2021 through September 2022, the most recent available. The number of passengers denied boarding by US airlines more than doubled compared to the same period last year. That period included three months of travel in 2020. The rate increased by 24% compared to the period beginning in October 2018, the most recent period of typical, prepandemic travel.

Airlines sometimes oversell their flights to compensate for no-shows. Carriers can usually anticipate the number of no-show travelers, and most customers are able to board without any problems. But collisions can also happen when airlines switch planes and have fewer seats than planned.

The reasons for this year’s increase vary by airline. Among the factors: fuller planes, shorter flight schedules and more airlines having to switch planes, airline executives and analysts say.

One airline performed the worst by far: Frontier Airlines involuntarily bumped 6,057 of the 23 million passengers who flew with the airline, at a rate of 2.63 per 10,000 passengers.

During the comparable period in 2018-2019, the airline denied boarding to 839 of the nearly 21 million passengers it flew, at a rate of 0.4 per 10,000 passengers.

Grens declined to comment.

Among those more than 6,000 passengers was Michelle Cecala, who learned after checking in and arriving at the St. Louis airport in June that her Frontier flight was overbooked. She says the next available Frontier flight wasn’t until the next day.

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In the end, she booked a ticket with Southwest Airlines to avoid missing part of the conference she planned to attend in San Diego. She says that more than doubled her Frontier rate. Frontier refunded her original ticket, and after speaking to a manager, she received a $600 Frontier voucher — about the cost of the Southwest flight.

The voucher required Ms. Cecala, who lives in Fort Myers, Florida, to book a flight within 90 days, which she said she couldn’t do. She was given an extension of the voucher after speaking to the Journal this month.

“It was a very stressful mess,” she says.

A Frontier spokeswoman says the flight was changed to a smaller plane, meaning Ms. Cecala was not owed compensation under DOT rules, but she received a voucher.

Southwest placed second last in the WSJ rankings due to the number of involuntary denied boarding. A spokesperson says this will happen if the airline has to change planes. According to DOT data, the most recent number of Southwest passengers bumped has more than doubled from the period beginning in October 2018.

The fallout from Covid-19 and weather disruptions such as Hurricane Ian, which swept through the Southeast in September, caused erratic operations, a spokesperson said in an email.

Airlines say they made an effort to bump into fewer passengers after David Daowas forcibly towed away a United Airlines flight in 2017.

Some airlines don’t bump passengers, including Allegiant Air. It did not have a single case of involuntary denied boarding from October 2021 to September 2022, DOT data shows. The airline’s flights are non-stop and there are no connections, so passengers cannot be inconvenienced by missed connections, a spokesperson said in an email.

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Because flights have been fuller, the alternatives may not get passengers to their destination until several days later, says Bob Mann, an industry analyst at RW Mann & Co., an aviation industry consulting firm. That means airlines have to offer passengers more money to change plans.

If no one volunteers, airlines usually look first at those who paid the least or checked in last, he says.

For years, Delta Air Lines has paid more passengers to voluntarily change their plans than other airlines. It paid nearly 96,000 people to voluntarily change their plans from October 2021 to September 2022, at a rate of about six passengers per 10,000. That percentage is 62% higher than the average rate of all airlines evaluated by WSJ.

A spokesperson says Delta is asking for volunteers more often, which explains why the airline bumped exactly four passengers in the 12-month period, as DOT data shows.

In some situations, fliers willing to gamble may end up with a surprisingly high bid. Delta drew attention on social media last summer when passengers on a flight from Michigan to Minnesota reported being offered $10,000 each to give up their seat on an oversold flight. (A spokesman called the situation very unusual but declined to discuss the details of the offer. He declined to specify the average amount paid to travelers on oversold flights.)

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Ali Caudle and her mother traveled from Missoula, Mont., to Minneapolis on Delta in April for a college visit in Boston. While in Minneapolis, she said her gate agent offered travelers about $400 to transfer to a later flight to Boston. The next flight was more than 10 hours later.

The couple decided to wait to see if the amount increased. It did.

They each received $1,200 to catch the later flight, she says, and received payment in Visa gift cards.

“We arrived in Boston in the middle of the night, but it was totally worth it,” she says. She used the gift cards to load up on supplies for college.

Your rights if you are bumped

The DOT has rules about what airlines owe to involuntarily bumped passengers.

If you’re bumped for overselling, you’ll owe a fee at the airport the same day. But in certain cases, such as if a smaller aircraft has been replaced or the aircraft carries less than 30 passengers, you are not eligible for compensation.

In an oversale situation, your compensation will vary based on the price of your ticket and your arrival delay. If you have a short delay, you will probably receive compensation equal to double the one-way price of the original flight. Airlines can limit this amount to $775.

If you arrive more than four hours later than originally planned, you are entitled to payment of four times the one-way value of the flight. Airlines can limit this amount to $1,550.

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