It was a PR nightmare played out on the evening news for not one but several nights: A passenger onboard a flight from Chicago to Louisville being forcibly removed after refusing to be “bumped” from an overbooked flight, while fellow passengers captured the incident on smartphone videos that went viral.
It was only one carrier, one flight, but it wasn't long before the entire industry got a black eye, just when profits were up and promises of improved customer satisfaction were made. Airline leaders had to react—and fast.
And so they have—and right in the peak of summer travel. In a little-noticed development, the carriers have improved communication with customers about the practice of overbooking flights that caused bumping. Among many steps, they now search for volunteers to give up their seats via electronic notices in advance, avoiding forced removal. The result: The bumping rate has dropped 29 percent from a year ago. It's the lowest level since 1995.
Leaders recognized that that while stressful to travelers, removing them from flights was also hard on another group: airline employees. “Bumping puts front-line workers in a very difficult position,” says Michael Bell, senior client partner in Korn Ferry’s Aviation practice. “The ticket agents really bear the brunt of this.”
The industry may have come to another realization. Reducing bumping can be an olive branch to weary travelers that is not so costly. Airlines, after all, are finding ways to make more money on the “extras”—from snacks and meals to legroom—all of which may make up for some of the difference for not selling an extra couple of seats.
To be sure, the business travel peak is still to come. Overbooking started years ago when this group began to book several flights at once with no penalty on their high-end fares. But so-called " fare bands” that vary in price and flexibility are enabling airlines to not only maximize profitability but also offer high-margin ancillary services to their customers and reduce overbooking.
For many, Southwest Airlines, which often gets high customer marks, remains a strong example of balancing low fares and good customer service. “They recognize that you can actually offer affordable fares while being courteous and friendly,” Bell says. “In the last three or four years, more low-fare carriers have come around to this point of view, offering the kinder and gentler version of the ultra-low fare model.” And so, apparently, have the major carriers.