Lately, it seems like everything that could go wrong in air travel has done just that, from entire airlines going on the fritz to technical glitches temporarily grounding flights across the U.S. and Canada.
Meanwhile, travel's ongoing recovery from Covid shutdowns has been accompanied by chronic understaffing and economic woes that have contributed to spikes in flight delays, cancellations, lost luggage, security wait times, and ticket prices.
If it feels like there's a but coming, we're sorry to disappoint you.
According to a recent analysis of airline data, passenger bumping—another one of flying's biggest pains in the neck—is making a comeback after a period of declines.
In its annual airline scorecard released last week, the Wall Street Journal found that, based on an examination of the most recently available U.S. Department of Transportation figures (covering October 2021 through September 2022), the rate of passengers denied boarding by U.S. airlines more than doubled compared to the same period the year before.
Perhaps more alarming still, 2022's bumping rate was 24% higher than during the last year before the pandemic.
Involuntary bumping, which can happen when an airline sells more tickets than there are seats on a plane as a hedge against no-shows, had been on the decline in the pre-Covid era.
In 2017, viral video showing United Airlines passenger David Dao getting roughly ejected from a plane seat he paid for sparked widespread outrage and caused a PR nightmare for the airline.
In the wake of the incident, the U.S. government tightened its rules for bumping passengers (though without banning overselling flights) and airlines sharply cut back on the practice.
But as the commercial aviation industry has struggled to right itself over the last couple years, bumping has crept back, not only because planes are fuller and flying schedules have been reduced, experts told the Journal, but also because carriers have needed to switch aircraft at airport gates more frequently than before.
To cope with shortages and availability issues, you see, an airline might decide to swap in a smaller plane for a flight that was originally supposed to have a bigger jet. And if, consequently, there aren't enough seats to go around for the number of passengers, some people could get bumped.
By the way, if you're bumped because of a smaller plane switcheroo rather than because of an oversold flight, the airline is not required by law to compensate you, according to the Transportation Department.
In the Wall Street Journal's analysis of U.S. airlines, the worst bumper "by far" is Frontier Airlines, which denied boarding to more than 6,000 passengers during the period under review. That comes out to 2.63 bumps per 10,000 flyers, up significantly from Frontier's rate of 0.4 per 10,000 in 2018–19.
The carrier with the best record last year was Allegiant Air, which managed not to bump a single solitary soul, perhaps owing, in the Journal's estimation, to Allegiant's strategy of scheduling only nonstop flights and eschewing connections and the cascading problems they can cause when something goes wrong.
Delta Air Lines only bumped four people during the 2021–22 window.
The company manages to keep that figure low mostly by paying volunteers to change their travel plans. The Journal found that Delta persuaded almost 96,000 such customers to take some form of financial compensation in exchange for their inconvenience last year—a rate 62% higher than the average for Delta's competitors.
Though the company doesn't make data available on the average amount of its offers to volunteers on oversold flights, Delta's generosity in these situations can be startling. Remember that Michigan-to-Minnesota flight during summer 2022 when Delta offered volunteers $10,000 apiece to give up their seats?
That was a rare case, but offers of $500, $1,000, and even $3,000 aren't unheard of.
No matter the airline, if nobody volunteers to change their travel plans and you end up being the bumpee, make sure to familiarize yourself with the Transportation Department's regulations about what you're owed for your trouble.
If getting bumped delays your plans by 1 to 2 hours domestically (or 1 to 4 hours internationally), you're entitled to compensation equivalent to two times the cost of your one-way airfare, up to a cap of $775. For longer delays you're owed four times the cost of the one-way fare, up to a cap of $1,550.
To see the full set of rules and compensation eligibility requirements for bumped passengers, go to Transportation.gov.