Passengers Bumped at Highest Rate in 6 Years

A story Friday overstated the number of Northwest Airlines flights delayed on July 26 and July 27 by a computer glitch. It was 562 flights.

Airline passengers in the USA are getting bumped off flights more frequently than at any time in the last six years, the government reported Thursday.

Some 16,300 passengers were bumped against their wishes in the April-June quarter, a rate of 1.12 passengers per 10,000. That rate is one-third higher than a year earlier. The airlines' rate of what the Department of Transportation calls "involuntary denied boardings" was the highest since the same quarter in 2000.

In all, the DOT said, airlines bumped about 185,000 passengers during the last quarter, also up from the year-ago quarter. Most volunteered to give up their seats.

The worsening problem with bumping reflects the intensifying push by airlines to fill a greater percentage of seats. Grappling with soaring travel demand, continuing financial problems and record high fuel prices, airlines are filling planes fuller to maximize ticket revenue while holding down operating costs. No.1 American Airlines filled a record 87% of its seats last month, while Delta and Continental filled 85% of seats during July. That means many flights were sold out or oversold.

Southwest Airlines bumped nearly 32,000 passengers voluntarily or involuntarily in the quarter, more than any other airline. But the Dallas-based discount giant also carried more passengers than any of the 19 airlines covered in the DOT report.

According to the DOT report, the percentage of delayed and canceled flights also increased from a year earlier. More than 25% of all domestic flights in June arrived late, defined as 15 minutes or more off schedule.

Summer 2006 is shaping up as the most troublesome for airline passengers in years, in part because of unexpected problems. During the week of July 16, New York City suffered a power outage, and Tropical Storm Beryl fouled up flights from New York to New England. On July 26 and July 27, a Northwest Airlines computer glitch delayed more than 2,700 flights.

This summer, Chicagoan Tony Hiller, a frequent traveler, has found that persistence pays. He spent two days trying to fly from Chicago to the Washington, D.C., area to visit his grandmother.

When American canceled his flight from Chicago O'Hare to Washington Reagan National Airport on July 20, a day when many flights were canceled, the airline told him it couldn't assure him another seat for four days.

"I was stunned," he says, "but some of the other passengers went completely ballistic."

American told passengers the airport would provide cots for an overnight stay if necessary. Instead, Hiller went home, and the next day caught a Southwest evening flight from Chicago Midway to Baltimore-Washington International.

Losing a seat The worst U.S. airlines for being bumped involuntary, per 10,000 passengers: Atlantic Southeast 3.60 Mesa 2.45 Comair 2.38 Alaska 1.95 Continental 1.80 Delta 1.62 US Airways 1.55 American Eagle 1.34 ATA 1.33 SkyWest 1.11 Avg. U.S. airlines 1.12 Source: Department of Transportation's August Air Travel Consumer Report