Home for the Holidays? Not So Fast…

Posted on December 16, 2019

Flights delayed or canceled, passengers bumped, family celebrations missed—we’ve all heard the air travel horror stories. What recourse do you have if it happens to you? Well, that can depend on what caused the problem. Today’s WatchBlog takes a closer look at two issues that can cause unexpected “turbulence” in your air travel plans—information technology outages and denied boardings.

A Photo of an Airplane Window Overlooking the Wings of the Plane

We apologize for the inconvenience

In recent years, some airlines have had well-publicized information technology outages. For example, in June 2018, American Airlines subsidiary PSA Airlines experienced an IT issue that led to the cancellation of about 3,000 flights over the following week.
The federal government does not track airline IT outages or their effects directly. Using multiple sources, we identified 34 IT outages from 2015 through 2017 affecting 11 of 12 selected airlines. About 85% of these outages resulted in flight delays or cancellations.

Figure Showing Examples of Airline Information Technology (IT) Systems and Potential IT Outage Effects

If you’re inconvenienced by IT outages, what rights do you have? Federal consumer protections don’t specifically address IT outages, but other protections may apply. For example, if an IT outage delays your plane on the tarmac, there are restrictions on how long the airline can keep you on the plane. If an outage cancels or significantly delays your flight, you are entitled to a refund if you request it, or you may receive a voucher for food or lodging—depending on the airline’s policies.

Ticket to ride?

Having a ticket isn’t a guarantee that you’ll be able to get on the plane. There are several reasons why airlines may deny boarding to a passenger:

  • Overbooking: Airlines overbook flights to avoid losing money when passengers don’t show up for their flights. Passengers can get bumped when there are fewer no-shows than expected.
  • Safety: An unruly or intoxicated passenger can be denied boarding to protect other passengers and crew.
  • Operations or personnel needs: Airlines sometimes need to accommodate flight crews that need to get to different locations, or air marshals—who tend to book flights near departure times.

Airlines can ask you to volunteer to give up your seat in exchange for some benefit, such as a travel voucher.

Figure Showing Example of an Airline's Process to Identify Volunteers for Denied Boarding

But if there aren’t enough volunteers, you can still get bumped. What rights do you have if airlines don’t let you board? In some cases, federal consumer protections require airlines to compensate you.

The number of passengers denied boarding has generally decreased in recent years. Almost all of those were volunteers, but the few passengers who were bumped against their will may have experienced considerable inconvenience and expense.

Figure Showing Passengers Denied Boarding Between 2012-2018

The decrease in denied boardings could in part be the result of actions airlines have taken, such as:

  • Reducing or eliminating overbookings
  • Requesting volunteers early (e.g., at check-in)
  • Increasing and diversifying compensation for volunteers
  • Inviting passengers to propose acceptable compensation

That said, we hope you don’t have trouble getting home for the holidays after all.