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Delta Air Lines

Delta hit with $375,000 fine for violation of passenger bumping rules

Jul 12, 2009

Delta, the world’s largest airline, just got hit with a $375,000 fine—a civil penalty—for violating rules designed to protect passengers who've been bumped.

In a prepared statement, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says, “Airlines often oversell their flights in order to ensure that they fill their seats.” LaHood asserts the Department of Transportation takes rules governing passenger rights in those circumstances “seriously.”

That’s why officials from DOT’s Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings reviewed passenger complaint records at Delta headquarters in Atlanta. Those records encompassed a six-month period, from January through July of 2008. DOT also looked at similar consumer complaints against the carrier. According to the prepared statement, what they found was “a number of instances in which the carrier bumped passengers but did not follow one or more” of the rules.

When an airline oversells a flight, and more passengers show up at the gate than there are seats on the airplane, those rules mandate the carrier ask for volunteers willing to give up their seat for compensation. If the airline can’t find enough volunteers and has to involuntarily bump a flyer, it’s required to give the passenger a written statement laying out their rights, and explaining just how it determines who gets bumped. “In most cases,” says DOT, “passengers bumped involuntarily are entitled to cash compensation up to $800.”

DOT says up to $200,000 of that $375,000 civil penalty it levied against Delta Air Lines for violations “may be used by the carrier to implement systems not required by the rules that will benefit consumers.”

In its own prepared statement Delta acknowledges the DOT consent order, and says it is "working to provide improved customer solutions to the number of improperly processed Denied Boarding Claims." Part of the solution: Delta says it will "implement a system to proactively invite customers on oversold flights to volunteer and bid on compensation they would be willing to accept in exchange for seats on other flights." The airline adds that it recently "implemented a system that will allow us to better record, track and report customer feedback to improve the [Denied Boarding Claims process]."

A couple of tips to help you cope with all this, maybe even come out ahead of the game. These suggestions apply to U.S. airlines in general. If you’re traveling on leisure and have a bit of time on your hands, perhaps can take a later flight, you can actually benefit by volunteering to be bumped. If you see the gate area is chockablock with passengers, don’t wait for the agent to ask for volunteers. Go to them early on and volunteer before they make the announcement the airplane has been oversold. Bumped flyers get not just a voucher for a future flight on the airline, but a seat on the next available flight on the carrier to their destination as well.

If you’re a bit of a gambler, wait and see if the gate agent ratchets up the compensation offer. If an airline doesn’t get any nibbles, say from a $200 voucher offer, they could go well higher. At that point it becomes a bit of a contest with wills with fellow passengers to see who will bite first – or get bumped involuntarily.

Time is money in the airline business, and carriers can't afford to have their flights wait at the gate while wrangling over compensation. It's often worth it for them to pay a bit more and push back from the gate on time.

Delta hit with $375,000 fine for violation of passenger bumping rules
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