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After United dragging incident, 3 major airlines change policies affecting bumped passengers

A passenger walks past an American Airlines plane at Reagan National Airport in Washington. American Airlines says it has changed its Conditions of Carriage. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

Delta has raised the compensation available to passengers who have to give up their seats on overbooked flights to nearly $10,000. American promises that no passenger who has boarded a plane will be removed to give the seat to someone else.

And, United said it will no longer allow crew members to displace passengers who are already seated on a plane.

The changes at the three major U.S. airlines address traveler concerns following the infamous United incident last week in which a passenger was dragged off a plane when he refused to give up his seat for a crew member.

Here’s what United will do differently after the infamous dragging incident

After the scuffle aboard a plane at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport went viral, air travelers and advocates have been calling for protections and changes to airlines policies. The U.S. Department of Transportation has said it is looking into the matter. Lawmakers have called for government intervention.

The three major airlines have announced the following steps:

  • United said its new policy requires airline crews to check in at least an hour before a flight leaves to avoid having to find a seat for a crew member after all passengers have already boarded. United chief executive Oscar Munoz said last week the airline is reviewing its policies, including incentives for customers, and hinted that there will be changes in the way local law enforcement deals with passengers aboard United flights. The airline would not disclose its current compensation limit.
  • Delta said in an internal memo that it is letting employees offer customers up to $9,950 in compensation to give up seats on overbooked flights. The sweet deal would be to avoid a situation like the one that occurred on United flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville. According to the Associated Press, Delta Air Lines said gate agents can offer up to $2,000, up from a previous maximum of $800, and supervisors can offer up to $9,950, up from $1,350. A spokesman confirmed the changes.
  • American updated its Conditions of Carriage after the United incident, stating that it “will not involuntarily remove a revenue passenger, who has already boarded,” to give a seat to another passenger. An airline spokesman said the airline does not set a cap on compensation for passengers, but said gate agents work with customers to ensure they set compensation amounts properly to obtain the correct number of volunteers.

Thousands of air travelers are forced to give up their seats every year

In the United incident, the airline initially said that Flight 3411 was “overbooked.” Airline officials later clarified that the flight wasn’t overbooked, but that it needed four seats for off-duty crew who needed to fly to Louisville. The case, however, highlighted the common practice by airlines to sell more tickets than available seats.

JetBlue says it has a long-standing policy not to overbook flights, and when it has to bump customers, the airline policy is to notify them at least four hours in advance, a spokesman said.

A Southwest spokeswoman said the airline is reviewing its procedures and policies after the recent industry developments. She said “employees are empowered to intervene in all situations with guidance to do right by our Customers. That takes limitless forms and is always tailored to unique circumstances.”

Delta chief executive Edward H. Bastian said in an earnings call last Wednesday that there’s no need for “additional legislation” to address concerns about the practice. He said it’s all about how airlines manage overbooking situations and doing it well. Last year, he said, Delta had 1,200 denied boardings, or about 1 in every 100,000 passengers.

“I don’t think it’s a significant challenge for us. I think it’s very much about giving our front line the tools and the flexibility to empower them at the first point of contact, and that’s what we’ll continue to do,” Bastian said two days before the airline’s new compensation cap became public. “I don’t think we need to have additional legislation to try to control how the airlines run their business in this space.”

United Airlines gets trolled by rivals

But some consumer groups say more steps are necessary to ensure incidents like the United dragging don’t happen again. The National Consumers League last week blamed the United incident on a lack of competition in the American airline industry.

“Unchecked airline consolidation, with four airlines now flying 80 percent of domestic passengers, has led to progressively more crowded planes, shrinking seats, outrageous fees, reduced service to smaller cities,” the NCL said in a statement urging Congress to take action to protect consumers.

“We all know that when airlines overbook, they offer passengers incentives to volunteer to give up their seats; United should never have escalated the situation and should have offered sufficient incentives to avoid this terrible outcome,” NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg said. “The fact that United can get away with this underscores just how few rights consumers have the minute they step into an airport.”