Bumping is not the only problem revealed by DOT statistics

DOT statistics

The report from the Department of Transportation (DOT) sounds dramatic — DOT statistics show airlines are bumping fewer passengers than any time since 1995. Travelers United congratulates the airlines, but there are too many passengers being paid off by the airlines when they sell seats they don’t have on planes, or overbook. Plus, plenty of other problems need fixing, like overcrowding, delays, outrageous change and cancellation fees, and more.

Yes, the airlines have improved when it comes to bumping, or involuntary denied boarding. Every airline made changes to their program in the wake of the Dr. Dao fiasco on United Airlines. In fact, Southwest Airlines has eliminated overbooking flights, and JetBlue has always had a no-overbooking policy.

Other airlines, like Delta and United, are resorting to upping the bribes, sorry compensation, to as much as $10,000 (probably in airline scrip) that they allow their gate agents to pay airline passengers when their computers leave a handful of passengers without seats because of overbooking. Of course, if airlines simply follow DOT rules and openly posted the denied boarding compensation rules, there will always be plenty of volunteers when soon-to-be-denied-boarding passengers are offered $1,350 in cash.

Congress is also getting in the act. The FAA bill that is supposed to be voted on in September will more than likely outlaw removing passengers after they have been seated on aircraft. Both the Senate and the House versions of that giant aviation bill have sections limiting airline actions when flights are overbooked. Once again, there are caveats with legislation, mainly getting it passed and then getting DOT to write the regulations governing the law.

All these changes regarding denied boarding or bumping are good, but bumping is one tiny part of the customer service experience. And, let’s face it, only a small percentage of travelers ever get bumped anyway, and most of those who get bumped want to get the extra money or free tickets. Some literally dance in the airport after getting their compensation.

Ten to 100 times more passengers volunteer (for money or tickets) to get off planes, according to DOT’s Air Travel Consumer Report for the first half of 2017. For instance: Delta Airlines bumped 71,498 voluntarily and only 650 passengers were bumped involuntariliy. Those passengers that the airlines pay to give up their seats never find their way into DOT’s airline statistics that are so widely quoted to show improving service.

But other issues, like delayed flights, more crammed seats in planes, battles over overhead baggage compartments, confusing airfares, no way to figure out the complete price of airline travel prior to purchasing your airfare, the impossibility of comparison shopping, exorbitant change and cancellation fees, are all still irritating hundreds of thousands of passengers every week.

And, we passengers have nowhere to turn. The big three airlines control as much as 80 percent of flights out of many airports and change prices and fees in unison. Travelers don’t even have the opportunity to vote with their wallets anymore.

Plus, the regulators themselves are suspect. FlyersRights.com, a sister consumer group, had to take the FAA to court to get its safety overseer to reveal its testing results regarding how many passengers can be crammed into planes. The FAA’s defense? The results of our tests are secret. Thankfully, the courts did not agree. And, DOT’s consumer protection division has never informed passengers about their European Union rights when delayed on transatlantic flights or the Montreal Convention rules for international flight delays.

Passengers are left on their own to figure out the arcane language of international treaties and foreign rules that lace the aviation world. When the civil servants who are paid to be on the public’s side are reluctant to provide regulation transparency, passengers cannot expect the profit-seeking airlines to be any more understanding.

When the aviation marketplace has more competition, both domestically and internationally, things will start looking up for consumers. Note international airfares for prime examples — all dialed back almost 30 percent since lowcost Norwegian and Wow! Airlines started flying transatlantic.

Comparison shopping and competition are still the consumers’ best friend. We need more of it, not less.