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Airlines get the message: Passengers bumped from flights drops to lowest level in decades

  • A total of 7,764 people out of the 177 million who flew in April, May and June, were bumped from flights, the Transportation Department said.
  • That passenger bump rate was down 29 percent compared with the same time a year ago.
Passengers check-in for flights at a United Airlines counter at Los Angeles International Airport.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Passengers check-in for flights at a United Airlines counter at Los Angeles International Airport.

Talk about a turnaround.

After years of dismissing the practice of bumping passengers from overbooked flights as just a regular part of doing business, airlines have done an about face.

In the second quarter, the percentage of passengers bumped from flights in the U.S. was the lowest since 1995, when the U.S. Department of Transportation started tracking overbooked flights.

A total of 7,764 people out of the 177 million who flew in April, May and June, were bumped from flights. The passenger bump rate was down compared with the same time a year ago.

"Airlines knew if they didn't solve the problem, somebody else would have solved it for them," said Seth Kaplan, managing partner of Airline Weekly.

That somebody else would have been the federal government, with members of Congress threatening new rules and regulations to change how airlines booked and treated passengers.

Those threats came after Dr. David Dao was dragged off of an oversold United Airlines flight in April. The video of a bumped passenger being forcibly removed sparked outrage not only against United Airlines but the industry's practice of overselling flights and telling passengers there's no seat for them.

After being scorned around the world, United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz not only apologized publicly, he announced United would dramatically reduce how often it bumped passengers.

United and Delta Air Lines have both increased how much money gate agents can offer passengers to voluntarily give up their seat. Raising the possible payment up to $10,000.

Kaplan said the changes in policies are far better for passengers and airlines.

"If you set it up so people get off voluntarily, overselling flights is not a big problem," he said.

Correction: The 0.44 percent in an earlier version of this article for the rate per 10,000 passengers was mischaracterized.