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Editorial: Better processes, incentives needed for bumped passengers

More than 10 days after video of the now-infamous "bumping" of a passenger from a United Airlines flight went viral, politicians in Congress are proposing numerous pieces of legislation to ensure such an incident doesn't happen again.

Several pieces of the legislation focus on forcing airlines to eliminate or at least scale back the practice of overbooking flights, which airlines have done for years in order to maximize profit. While anyone who has done any amount of air travel is relieved when the plane fills up and there's still an empty seat between you and the other passenger in your row, airlines cringe at the prospect. Empty seats are empty pockets, relatively speaking.

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While the April 9 incident that ended with a 69-year-old man being bloodied and dragged off the plane by law enforcement after he refused to give up his seat was an extreme overreaction by United and absolutely uncalled for, knee-jerk reaction for government regulation that would prevent airlines from overbooking would actually be worse for most customers who fly.

Executives will find a way to maintain the bottom line. Think that plane tickets and associated fees are expensive now? Expect those prices to go up if the airlines can't take safeguards to protect themselves from having empty seats on nearly every flight.

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An attorney for David Dao, the passenger dragged from his seat aboard a United flight on Sunday, said the incident the incident will "probably" result in a lawsuit.

Airlines have calculated that there is a certain percentage of people who won't show up for their flight, and thus, strategically overbook their planes to account for that. According to a CNN article, U.S. airlines filled just 82 percent of seats with paying passengers last year. But since that formula is trying to predict human nature, it doesn't always work out exactly for each flight.

When that happens, airlines often offer incentives in the form of vouchers for future flights, hotel stays and even cash for passengers to voluntarily vacate their seats. If your travel plans are flexible, you can actually make money or at least rack up free travel. But sometimes airlines can't get enough volunteers, as was the case April 9, when you have a plane full of individuals who just need — or want — to get wherever it is they are going.

That's when things can get ugly, and where we think government could step in and make a difference.

Most people don't understand overbooking and processes for removing passengers, since airlines aren't forthcoming with them, but "budget" or "economy" passengers are usually the first. Forcing airlines to sell a certain percentage of tickets for each flight with a clear acknowledgment and warning that purchasing such a ticket means you will be among the first asked to leave if necessary might be one solution. Improving financial compensation for being involuntarily removed from a flight — the U.S. Department of Transportation currently caps this at $1,350 — might be another.

Certainly, there is no excuse for the violent and abusive removal of a passenger, no matter how stubborn, unless they are threatening harm to others on the plane, and the practices of overbooking and bumping passengers is certainly an inconvenience, but realistically one that affects just 8 of every 100,000 people flying each year, according to U.S. DOT.

Some steps can be taken to better protect consumers, and airlines can do a better job of managing flights before passengers are seated on the plan, but banning the process of overbooking will just make the prospect of air travel even more expensive than it already is.



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