HAVE YOU EVER arrived at an airport with a confirmed ticket in your hand only to be told the plane was full? If you have, you know it produces instant outrage. It also produces polite apologies from across the counter, a seat on another plane, and - about half the time - some money to ease your distress and, if you choose, drown your sorrow. Starting next September, thanks to the Civil Aeronautics Board, the money will cross the counter all the time and in amounts that may be large enough to obliterate even the most outrageous outrage.
Claiming that the airlines have done nothing to reduce the problem they create by selling more reservations than there are seats, the CAB has doubled the penalty. If you get bumped and will arrive at your destination no more than two hours late, the airline will have to pay you the price of your ticket (up to $200). If, by being bumped, you will be more than two hours late on a domestic or four hours late on an international flight, the airline will have to pay you twice the price of your ticket (up to $400). That's enough to soothe a goodly amount of outrage, even though the airlines will be allowed to negotiate a lower figure with the bumpee if they can.
The penalties, of course, won't solve the basic problem. Airlines oversell flights because some passengers make reservations, buy tickets and never show up at all. The number who do that is fairly substantial, which is why standbys often get on flights that have been sold out for weeks. The airlines claim their statistics are good enough to enable them to predict fairly accurately the number of no-shows on each fight. But the old penalty (the airline had to pay nothing if it could get you there no more than two hours late) didn't provide enough of an incentive to refine those statistics. While the odds of getting bumped were only about 1 in 1,400 last year, that meant 150,000 people experienced that moment of gloom at the counter or gate.
We don't know whether the new penalty is large enough to change the numbers. That's an economic problem for the airlines to figure out. But we suspect the amount of cash to be handed out will make many victims feel that being left at the gate wasn't so bad after all.