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US airlines are bumping more travelers as Boeing 737 Max planes grounded

Key Points
  • U.S. airlines are bumping more travelers, partially due to the grounding of the 737 Max, the DOT says.
  • The FAA grounds the planes after two fatal crashes within five months of one another.
  • Bad weather also plays a role in the denied boardings.
An aircraft marshaller guides a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 aircraft to a gate at John Wayne Airport airport in Santa Ana, California.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Here's some unwelcome news to start the summer travel season: Your chances of getting bumped off your flight is on the rise.

After boasting record low bumping rates, U.S. airlines in the first three months of this year denied boarding to travelers at the highest rate since 2017, according to Department of Transportation data released Wednesday. The increase was partially driven by the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max, which took more than 70 of the high-capacity planes out of service.

Aviation authorities worldwide, including the Federal Aviation Administration, grounded the Boeing jets after two fatal crashes of the model, one in Indonesia and another in Ethiopia, within five months of one another. A total of 346 people were killed in the two crashes.

American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, which have 58 of the jets in their fleets combined and posted higher-than-average bumping rates, told federal officials that the 737 Max grounding hurt their results, the Department of Transportation said in its report. Bad weather added to the number of passengers who were denied boarding, said American Airlines spokesman Ross Feinstein.

After the violent dragging of passenger David Dao off a plane in April 2017 sparked a public-relations disaster for United Airlines, carriers have taken measures to avoid involuntary bumping. Measures include alerting passengers of oversold flights before they get to the airport so they can opt to rebook online and increasing compensation for passengers who are okay with getting bumped.

Airlines are now bracing for the busiest summer travel season on record. Southwest, American and United have canceled thousands of flights through August because the 737 Max is grounded. The FAA has not said when it will allow the jets to fly again.

The chances of getting bumped are still relatively low. In the three months ended March 31, U.S. carriers' involuntary bumping rate was 0.32 per 10,000 passengers, the highest rate since the third quarter of 2017, and up from a rate of 0.15 per 10,000 travelers in the year-earlier period, the report showed.

In the first quarter, 6,175 passengers were involuntarily denied boarding. That is nearly triple the number from the same period a year ago but small in comparison with the 195.7 million passengers who checked in for flights in those three months.

The rate refers to travelers whom airlines bump, not those who voluntarily take a different flight when theirs is oversold.

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