Many were horrified this week by the forced removal of a man from a United Airlines flight. The way he was ejected was certainly egregious, but it is commonplace for flights to end up too full: more than 475,000 passengers got bumped off US domestic flights last year alone, usually due to overbooking.
Airlines often sell more seats than a flight contains. If all of those passengers show up – or, as in the case of the United Airlines flight, the seats are required to accommodate crew members – they can be asked, and sometimes forced, to give up their seat.
Most airlines will ask for volunteers first, offering an alternative flight and a cash incentive. But if there are not enough volunteers, the airlines selects passengers and tells them they cannot fly. If they refuse, they may still be denied boarding or removed from the plane, as was the case for 40,629 people last year.
Figures show that United Airlines is not the worst offender when it comes to bumping passengers off flights. In fact, it’s close to average.
In the past year, 7.7 out of every 10,000 passengers who booked a US domestic flight with United either volunteered to give up their seat or were told they could not fly. Compare that with ExpressJet passengers, who were more than twice as likely to be asked or forced to give up their seat.
In the UK, airlines are pretty defensive about the number of refusals. British Airways calls it “commercially sensitive information”, and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) says it does not keep data on individual airlines.
However, a recent CAA report showed that fewer than 0.02% of passengers flying in and out of the UK were denied boarding during 2015.