United Reportedly Dumped Passengers From Flight Based on How Much They Paid for Tickets

The Consumerist has an interesting story this week reporting that United Airlines allegedly over-sold a flight and then dumped passengers based on how much (or little) they paid for their tickets.

The site quotes a passenger as saying that United staff was open about the selection criteria in bumping 20 or so passengers from a flight from Burlington to Washington, D.C. that was too heavy to fly.

Bruce Poon Tip tweeted that staff told them that discount passengers would be thrown over the side first. To their credit, there is no report of actually requiring passengers to line up from most valuable to least valuable like the Roman games.

United has not responded to the reports. I am not sure how flight personnel would know how much each passenger paid for a ticket. Perhaps someone can explain how this is even possible. The Consumerist is reporting that passengers were told that this is how the selection was made. If true, this would appear a clear contractual violation since United does not inform passengers that they are subject to being dumped on the basis for securing cheaper tickets.

17 thoughts on “United Reportedly Dumped Passengers From Flight Based on How Much They Paid for Tickets”

  1. “I disagree about airlines having become better at overbooking. I think they’ve gotten much worse.”

    My father worked for United for 35 years. He retired about 5 years ago. I KNOW that United (and other airlines) have increased their overbooking practices. My dad complained about this purposeful increase in the number of overbookings for the last few years he was with United. He was one of the employees that had to deal with irate customers that had been bumped. When I fly United, it is a common experience for me to hear an announcement asking for a few customers to volunteer to wait for the next flight because of overbooking.

    One of the perks of working for an airline is that you get super low-cost standby tickets. You only pay the service charge and taxes (at least that is how United does it). My family flew all over the US when I was young and through the 1990s. We have stopped using standby tickets because they are essentially worthless due to overbooking. Flying with employee standby tickets is a waste of time AND money now.

  2. Wow usually they ask if anyone wants to be bumped, and provide incentives for the trouble, like hotel rooms or another ticket.


  3. I would bet that there is a legal claim here: specifically, I would bet that United sold a number of undiscounted seats at the last minute, knowing full well they would then bump passengers who had purchased discount tickets a long time ago. In other words, United likely violated the contract they had entered into with the passengers when they sold the tickets, or at least the implied covenant of good faith, and possibly engaged in unfair or deceptive business practices.

  4. Gate agents could easily see the fare basis designator (basically the fare “bucket”) for each ticket, and sort the passengers that way. I’m pretty sure they also could see which passengers have achieved premium frequent-flyer status (Silver/Gold/Platinum/more – Global Services on United) so they don’t piss off the really frequent flyers who might happen to be flying on a cheap ticket on a particular day.

    Having said that, in my experience the airlines have gotten pretty good at forecasting no-shows and incenting people to voluntarily take a re-book; I can’t remember the last flight I’ve been on where they’ve had to do involuntary denied boarding. All of the flights from Burlington to Dulles are rather small regional jets (50-66 seats), so this amounted to removing 30-40% of the passengers. I would guess it probably resulted from a cancelled flight earlier or a combination of a cancellation plus hot weather.

  5. @Beth; There are data regarding the overbooking. Overall, it’s down and the algorithms have gotten better. Data are not the plural of anecdote. If a prior flight had been canceled due to mechanical problems (rather than than just being empty), then your flight easily could have become overbooked before you arrived.

  6. My son flies regularly for business, primarily on AA, has never been bumped perhaps he’s an Ambassador or what ever they call their VIP passengers. This can’t be based on ticket price, as his co. books way ahead and gets fabulous fares but lots of them. Could one of the factors in this story have to do with frequency fliers as well as discount fares?

  7. Hey, Rich. I disagree about airlines having become better at overbooking. I think they’ve gotten much worse. I’d liken it to a gambling operation. I was recently bumped from a flight on American for which I’d paid a full, noncheap fare for (and bought weeks ahead of time) and was bumped. How bad was it? I’d been issued a ticket from that self-help machine once I got to O’Hare, and there wasn’t even a boarding group number on my ticket. I sat there waiting, waiting, waiting to board, and finally was told there was no room.

    I even told the agent that this made no sense to me at all; that American Airlines (and all other airlines that engage in this practice) should be fined big-time, per bumped passenger, whenever this happens, in order to curb their excessive inclination to overbook.

    Passengers have to have trust in the airlines that when a ticket is purchased, they’re definitely going to be on that flight. End of story.

  8. All tickets have class codes showing 1st, business, unrestricted economy, restricted economy, super discount economy, etc. They know how much you paid in a flash.

  9. Ticket price is on the flight coupon. This is a flight on a regional jet (I’ve taken it). Even if the gate agent couldn’t generate a report, they could easily scan for low fares and wouldn’t have had much else to do–Burlington is not a hub, it just has a few flights a day on United. I’m curious how they got the 20 to DC because they couldn’t just “throw them over the side. Airlines regularly overbook and have gotten better at estaimating how many tickets they can sell this way–how they overbooked by 20 is as much a problem as how they culled the heard.

  10. At least they didn’t break anyone’s guitar…


  11. “I am not sure how flight personnel would know how much each passenger paid for a ticket. ”

    palm pilots?

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