Denied Boardings Have Plunged For Most Airlines But Not American (And That’s Not Bad)

Everyone remembers what happened on April 9, 2017. Ok, you might not recall the exact date, but that was the day that the Chicago airport police forcibly dragged Dr. Dao off a United Express flight, leaving him bloodied. The flight wasn’t oversold, but the regional airline that operated the flight had to get some crewmembers on board at the last minute. That meant it had to deny boarding to some passengers who had already boarded the full flight. The resulting uproar forced many airlines to broadly address the issue of denied boardings during the second quarter of last year. But have things changed? They sure have, and we now have the numbers we need to do a year-over-year comparison. I’m going to get into the weeds in this two-part post. Today we’ll look at United, Delta, American, and Alaska. Tomorrow, get ready for Southwest, JetBlue, Frontier, Spirit, and Hawaiian.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) releases quarterly denied boarding numbers. Since the Dr. Dao incident happened in the second quarter of last year, the ideal before/after comparison is between the first quarter of this year and the first quarter of 2017. gives us what we need.

What’s the headline? Well, involuntary denied boardings (where the airline denies boarding even though the traveler doesn’t want to cooperate) dropped from 9,566 in the first quarter last year to 2,254 this year. The rate per 10,000 passengers flown plunged from 0.62 to merely 0.12. Voluntary denied boardings (where people volunteer to give up a seat when the airline asks for help) also went down from 102,285 for the first quarter of 2017 to 85,607 in the first quarter of this year. So, overall, the airlines did what they said, but let’s look deeper because there are different stories to be told at each airline.

One note before we get into the details here. When I show data for an airline, I’m showing only the mainline operation. Regional airlines still report on their own, and it’s not possible to determine if a passenger was on, for example, a SkyWest flight operated for Alaska, American Eagle, Delta Connection, or United Express. That’s not to say there hasn’t been an impact on them, but it’s easier to just leave them out to see a clearer picture.

United Kept Its Promise
Let’s start with United since that was the airline that started this mess in the first place. After the Dr. Dao incident, United put out an action plan saying it would reduce overbooking, offer higher compensation to get more volunteers, and do a better job of proactively soliciting people to give up their seats in advance. This seemed like overkill, and it should have made the numbers go way down. To nobody’s surprise, that’s exactly what happened.

As you can see, involuntary denied boardings almost went to zero. There were actually a total of 27 for the entire quarter, down from 900 the year before. There will always be a couple denied boardings thanks to a last minute aircraft swap or some similar issue, but United promised to get aggressive in combating the issue. It did. On the voluntary side, things declined as well. Presumably this is because of the decision to reduce overbooking. Naturally you would need fewer volunteers if you did that.

Delta Keeps Doing It Well
Now let’s look at Delta, an airline that long ago figured out how to handle oversold flights.

Delta reduced its involuntary denied boardings from almost nothing to even closer to nothing. It technically had a rate of 0.004 since the airline did involuntarily bump 13 passengers, but that is insignificant (unless you’re one of those 13, I suppose). On the voluntary side, you’ll see Delta had a much higher rate than United, but it still managed to reduce it significantly. Why is it higher? Because Delta was smart, and the airline aggressively sought out volunteers.

Delta has long had a high number of voluntary denied boardings, but a customer that volunteers is a happy customer. Delta made the decision that overbooking was worth more to the airline than the cost of paying out in vouchers to volunteers. That’s what United should have done. But we still see a big decline this year in volunteers on Delta. That could be due to a shift in revenue management or it could just be luck of the draw. Either way, those numbers are only concerning in that for travelers, it means there are now fewer options to get paid.

American Trends the Other Way
Moving on to American, we see an airline where the number of voluntary denied boardings has actually gone up.

That may be a surprise, but it shouldn’t be. After all, American said in the wake of the Dr. Dao incident that it would start raising the cap on what it offered to recruit volunteers. The end result is that the number of involuntary denied boardings has dropped a lot, though it’s still higher than the other big guys with 483 total. (That is small enough, however, that a handful of poorly-handled winter weather events could have accounted for a lot of that.) Interestingly, voluntary denied boardings have gone in the other direction.

I asked American about the shift, and this is what I was told:

At American, we strive to provide the best customer experience and that means having seats for every passenger, every time. While the chances of being denied boarding on a flight remain extremely rare, unplanned events such as weather or mechanical needs do occasionally impact our flights, and any time there are more passengers than seats on the airplane, our team members aim to resolve the situation by asking for volunteers. Our involuntary denied boardings are at the lowest point in American’s history.

That doesn’t say a ton, but it does sound like an airline that’s not looking to make any changes to its current plan. It should be noted that American’s volunteer rate is still well below Delta’s, so this is probably by design. Remember, a volunteer is generally a happy customer, so it’s just up to American to decide if the extra revenue benefit is worth more than the costs involved. It sounds like American believes that to be the case.

Alaska Surprisingly Improves
To look at Alaska, I added together both Alaska and Virgin America together. Virgin America actually performed better than Alaska, but it was the same airline managing both sides of the operation, so it’s worth counting as one. Here’s what happened.

Considering that Alaska is in the throes of a merger here, you’d think it would have suffered more than it did. But Alaska made real strides on reducing its bumping numbers even though on the involuntary side, it’s still one of the worst. Then again, it does overbook and it saw the same result as Southwest, which doesn’t, so that says something.

Come back tomorrow and we’ll talk more about Southwest’s surprising results along with the rest of the airlines that report, including the worst offenders.

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