Airlines Involuntarily Bumping Passengers: A Look at the Data


You've probably all seen the images of the passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight, to make room for airline staff flying on standby. The incident caused quite a bit of negative publicity, and quickly wiped out a quarter billion dollars of the airline's market value. But did you know that other passengers have also been involuntarily bumped off of flights before - by both United and other airlines? Evidently the other airlines didn't get as much publicity, but it happens more often than you might have guessed. Let's have a look at the actual data ...

But before we get into the data analysis, here's a photo to get you into the 'airline' mood. This is a picture of my friend Mary and her son, flying to Disney in Orlando. Although he looks sweet in this picture, Mary assures me that he has the potential to pitch quite a tantrum, if they tried to forcibly bump him from his flight! ;-)

And now, let's analyze some data! I did a bit of web searching, and found an article on our local news site that had just about what I was looking for. They had a graph showing the rate of people who had been involuntarily bumped off of flights by each airline. They had a fairly good bar chart, but it still left me feeling a little unfulfilled:

I like that they used a horizontal bar chart, since that works well with the long text names. And I like that they sorted the bars, with the longest ones at the top. But my main complaint is that the article's focus was on United Airlines, but the graph was more generic (I actually had to look for several seconds to find United in the graph). So, of course I decided to create my own version, to try to improve it.

I did a bit of searching, and found the actual airline data in a table on p. 34 of a report on the transportation.gov website. I copy-n-pasted it into the datalines section of a data step, and wrote a bit of code to read in each line and parse it (I did cheat a little by manually adding some ':' characters to make the text easier to parse). And here is the chart I came up with - click the image to see the interactive version, with mouse-over text for each bar:

Here are some of the changes/improvements in my graph:

  • The bar for United Airlines is red, so it is easy to find.
  • The bars for the other airlines are gray, so they don't stand out as much.
  • I annotated the rate numbers on each bar, so you don't have to guess what the values are.
  • I don't use the informal word 'bump' in my graph (since they don't use that word in the data).
  • I added much more info in my html mouse-over text than the original graph had.

Since the data table had 2015 data available, I also created a 2015 graph, so you can compare that to 2016. Looks like United improved a little from 2015, and Expressjet had the worst bump rate both years.

So, purely looking at the data, it appears that United Airlines isn't really so bad when it comes to the rate at which they involuntarily bump passengers off flights ... but they certainly got a lot of attention with the way they physically did it this time. I predict that these rates will be much lower for all the airlines in the 2017 graph!

So, how do you think airlines should handle things like this? Should they be allowed to overbook flights, and then bump people off (either voluntarily or involuntarily)? When they overbook a flight assuming there will be some no-shows, do they (in essence) get paid twice for the those seats? If they don't overbook, then will all our seats cost a little more? If they overbook and don't have enough seats, how much should they pay in compensation to buy some seats back? (should there be a $ limit at which they can start involuntarily removing passengers?)

Have you ever voluntarily given up your seat, and how much $ compensation did you receive?

Robert Allison, The Graph Guy!, SAS

Robert Allison has worked at SAS for more than 20 years and is perhaps the foremost expert in creating custom graphs using SAS/GRAPH. His educational background is in computer science, and he holds a BS, MS, and PhD from North Carolina State University. He is the author of several conference papers, has won a few graphic competitions, and has written a book calledSAS/GRAPH: Beyond the Basics.

Airlines Involuntarily Bumping Passengers: A Look at the Data

Airlines bumping paying passengers is an issue that has gotten a lot of attention recently. Here's a visual representation of how often it happens.

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Re: Roots of those passenger abuse tallies
  • 4/21/2017 9:28:34 AM
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The article I read said it was due to a few reasons, first is that customers don't know how to redeem their rewards, they forget about the rewards or they believe they are saving up for something big.  The last group seems to be optimistically misinformed because there was mention that with rising prices over time saving up your rewards nets you lower value on your rewards.  The typical card holder doesn't spend enough quickly enough to keep up with rising costs.

Re: Roots of those passenger abuse tallies
  • 4/20/2017 10:17:51 AM
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The model seems to work that way. I don't understand the consumers who sign up and then don't use the benefits.

Re: Roots of those passenger abuse tallies
  • 4/20/2017 9:16:42 AM
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It's a good business model apparently.  I just heard this morning that 1/3 of rewards card holders never redeem their rewards.  That's free money for the airlines as long as those cards are active.  

Re: Roots of those passenger abuse tallies
  • 4/19/2017 4:41:50 PM
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..

If there's any airline that would like to find a way to make money other than dealing with passengers, I'd bet it's United – especially after this recent experience ...

..

Re: Roots of those passenger abuse tallies
  • 4/19/2017 4:34:02 PM
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I see the airlines becoming more like commercial gyms, their profits are higher and their costs are lower if they can get you to sign up for a fee based program and then they never see you again.  I guess this is why every flight I've been on in the past few years has included a sales pitch for their rewards card.  They won't ever stop operating the planes but they'll put less effort into making flying enjoyable while putting more effort into making it more attractive to swipe your rewards card.

Re: How doe they manage that?
  • 4/19/2017 4:30:37 PM
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@ Robert - United should send you a check for this graph.  It really tells a different story than many would suspect. 

I'm not too surprised that Southwest is the top for bumping only because they do so many shorter flights. 

 

Re: Roots of those passenger abuse tallies
  • 4/19/2017 12:43:28 PM
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@lyndon_Henry fascinating. It would explain why there is so little interest in serving the customers in that industry.

Great Work!
  • 4/19/2017 12:10:53 PM
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I just read the code.  Great work!

Re: Roots of those passenger abuse tallies
  • 4/18/2017 3:18:31 PM
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..

SaneIT writes


I think passengers have become much less important in the past few years.  I just read last week that airlines now make more money on credit card fees/rewards than they do selling seats on the plane.  When your main line of revenue is a fee paid by people not flying then the bodies in the seats start to look like hurdles in increasing profitability. 


 

This apparently was pointed out in a March 31st Bloomberg News article («Airlines Make More Money Selling Miles Than Seats»). However, there's some debate over whether this is true for all the major airlines (for example see «NOT QUITE: Financial Analyst Claims "Airlines Make More Money Selling Miles Than Seats"».)

Whatever the case, I think SaneIT's point is valid – whether it's true or too close to call, airlines are making about as much (or more than) selling "loyalty" programs (mainly credit card fee kickbacks) as they do selling travel. It would certainly seem to me that the credit cards are a lot less trouble to deal with than passengers.

Colleagues and I have long had a joke about the attitude of a lot of public transportation management: transit systems would be a heckuva lot easier to run if they didn't have to deal with hauling all those damn passengers. I'd suspect airline management (or a lot of it) has come to have the same attitude ...

..

United Not the Leader in Bumps ? Doesn't Matter To Me.
  • 4/18/2017 1:40:53 PM
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Nice Job as usual Robert  in providing more detail and a easier  to read Graph.  I am going to start calling you the Graph Whisperer !    So the rate of bumping passengers isn't all that high when it comes to United ?  Well that is great because it reduces the chance of United doing something it doesn't do well - appreciate or respect their customers.

 

I have flown United often for business and have run into United culture of the "customer doesn't know best" and after this latest recorded mishap, I intend to do everything I can to never spend another dime for a United ticket. 

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