May 30, 2007

More bumped airline passengers and longer waits ahead

PHOENIX: The summer travel season is under way, and so many planes are expected to be full that, if you are bumped, you could end up waiting days for a seat on another flight to the same destination.

The number of fliers bumped against their will is expected to reach a high for the decade this year.

True, those travelers - about 56,000 of them - still represent only a small fraction of all passengers. But the increasing difficulty of rebooking bumped passengers has made the experience more maddening for fliers and for the airline workers who deliver the bad news.

A look behind the scenes at US Airways at the widespread practice of airline overbooking shows the industry's struggle to fill every possible seat, including those left empty by the millions of passengers who buy a ticket but then do not show up.

The effort at times pits a group of young math whizzes at the airline against battle-tested gate agents, who are often skeptical of the complex computer models used to predict no-shows and to overbook flights.

Some agents even take matters into their own hands, creating phantom reservations - Mickey Mouse is a favorite passenger name, for example - to keep the math nerds at headquarters from overbooking a flight.

"It's a little bit of black art," said Wallace Beall, senior director for revenue analysis, who oversees overbooking at US Airways.

Overbooking is one of many airline practices that are aggravated by crowded planes.

Airlines are running closer to capacity than at any point during the jet age - an expected 85 percent or so full this summer, which means all the seats on popular routes will be taken.

Airlines overbook to avoid losing billions of dollars because of empty seats. Inevitably, though, they guess wrong on some flights, and too many people arrive at the gate.

Vouchers for free flights have long been used to convince enough passengers to stand aside and wait for the next flight. But now, more people are refusing the vouchers - which can vary from a small dollar amount to a round-trip ticket anywhere an airline flies (people who are involuntarily bumped get up to $400 for their troubles).

The reason: Fliers have figured out that, with flights full, there are fewer and fewer seats to which they can be bumped.

"I usually volunteer to be bumped," said Pamela Ingram, a consultant who travels most weeks from her home in Binghamton, New York, and loves collecting airline vouchers for leisure travel.

"But not lately," she said. "It's a different game. The wait can be days."

The number of people bumped involuntarily - those refusing the voucher - rose 23 percent last year and kept rising in the first quarter of this year.

The ranks of all bumped passengers last year, 676,408, was small - unless you were one of them - compared with the 555 million total airline passengers.

Airline workers, of course, do not like bumping, either.

"It's embarrassing," said Brigid Mullin, a gate agent for US Airways here. On one or two flights a day, Mullin is left to explain to passengers that US Airways sold more tickets than it has seats on the plane.

"People are going to yell," Mullin said.

Beall, the US Airways official, said, "Employees call in sick because they don't want to deal with overbookings."

Other coping strategies by agents include entering phantom bookings - in addition to Mickey Mouse, they occasionally enter the name of W. Douglas Parker, the chief executive at US Airways - to keep a flight from being oversold.

But phantom bookings later show up in the computer system as, you guessed it, a no-show, and the system then will overbook the next flight even more.

"We call it the death spiral," said Beall's boss, Thomas Trenga, vice president for revenue management at US Airways.

The airline has repeatedly told gate agents not to enter phantom bookings since US Airways and America West Airlines merged in the fall of 2005.

At an employee meeting just after the merger, Parker was confronted about the issue by John Martino, then a gate agent in Boston.

"You know you're going to be yelled and screamed at to the point you have to call the police," he said.

Parker replied: "Why do we do so much of it? We will overbook as long as we allow people to no-show for flights."

"Seven to 8 percent of our customers are no-shows," he added.

At some airlines, the no-show rate is higher, as passengers take advantage of refundable tickets, which include those bought by business travelers at the last minute.

By Jeff Bailey

Source: International Herald Tribune

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