Why are airlines allowed to bump passengers for crew?

Sorry if this has been addressed in the long threads. If so, please just direct me to the appropriate thread. And figured this was likely to involve more opinion than simple fact.

This a.m. in the paper I read that United is now requiring that crew/staff make reservations 1 hour before departure, rather than the previous system of any time up to departure. Why would the airline and its employees not be able to make their plans well in advance of that?

It just seems so - odd - that a business is able to bump a paying passenger, for the - um - convenience of its crew. It seems as tho the airline could do any number of things to protect themselves (and their passengers) against such an eventuality:
-Holding back a number of seats until the day before departure.
-Filling out work schedules and requiring crew to make reservations well in advance.
-Requiring crew to show up early enough to try several different flights.
-Offering more and more to encourage passengers to willingly delay.

Is there some reason that the airlines feel this arrangement is necessary? And are there reasons the government is willing to support that?

They’re a private business and can set their own policies. As for plans, planes can be late. There may have been seats waiting for the crew on an earlier flight, but they got into the airport too late to make it. The government does have requirements for crew (how many hours they can work, for example), and this group needed to be at the destination for the plane there to take off.

In this case, there probably wasn’t another flight anywhere else that would get them to Louisville on time. If they’re late, the passengers in Louisville would be inconvenienced.

Given hindsight, United’s best solution would be to offer more to the passengers to give up their seat and to hire a limo to get them to Louisville.

The issue here is not crew traveling for fun. The issue is crew being moved by the airline as part of them running their business.

Often this is preplanned days or weeks in advance. But when something goes wrong, it’s “planned” on the spur of the moment: “Hey you: forget what you thought you were doing here at ABC. Jump on the next jet to DEF so you can fly it to GHI.”

What they are saying here is that going forward they’re going to plan these last minute things a little less close to the bone. If they don’t have an hour’s notice for the change, then the “next flight” to DEF is effectively the one after that. The obvious goal is to resolve any bumping before the last of the boarding passes are handed out *and *before anyone (much less everyone) gets seated aboard. IOW, camouflage the reality a bit more thoroughly.

The motivation to move a crewmember as a passenger is always to prevent a downstream cancellation. IOW, it comes down to this: We have a problem brewing in DEF where we won’t have crew to work to GHI leaving in a couple hours. We can fix that by grabbing somebody in ABC and getting them to DEF reasonably timely. So our choice is to (maybe) bounce one passenger from the ABC-DEF flight or to definitely have all 50 or 150 or 250 passengers get bounced when the DEF-GHI flight cancels for lack of crew.

Which in turn will cause a cascading problem when the airplane and the rest of the crew are trapped in DEF and can’t do whatever they all were supposed to do *after *getting the GHI.

A consequence of this new policy is that my “reasonably timely” just above just got worse. They will see more delays and cancellations throughout their system. The “snowball factor” will get worse on bad weather days, where one delay begats 3 begats 9 begats 27 begats 81. Instead it’ll be 1 -> 4 -> 16 -> 64 -> 256.

Thanks. The part about late flights makes some sense. Although, I’d imagine that if the crew was on their way someplace on a delayed flight, that flight would be able to notify folk at corporate/reservations/wherever that this situation was developing, rather than waiting for the crew to show up at the gate.

Odd that despite the tons of discussion of this case, I haven’t heard a peep about understandable reasons why the crew could not have made arrangements earlier. Instead, the only info impressed me as suggesting there was little urgency - the crew was flying out on Sunday for a flight the following day. Folk have suggested that contracts may have prevented using a limo or contracted flight, but I haven’t heard any suggestion that alternatives were even considered.

True what you say about them being private businesses. However, they are highly regulated businesses. Doesn’t seem right to cite regulations as the reason they may need to bump passengers for crew, without allowing regulations to play some role in how they are allowed to do that.

We cross-posted, LSL. I wasn’t suggesting the crew was travelling for fun. If this instance WERE an emergency, I would expect the airline to trumpet that fact. I imagine many folk would understand the need in situations as you describe. But as I understood it, the new United policies say nothing about “in event of unforeseeable circumstances.”

Moreover, while not underestimating the complexity of the airlines’ mission, such delays are foreseeable. From my perspective, the current situation simply imposes the greatest cost on paying passengers (likely suggesting that is necessary to ensure the lowest fares.)

I work for an airline (not that airline). The FAA and the unions have extremely strict and elaborate rules about how long the flight crew can work, how long they can be made to sit around waiting to work, how much rest they must be given away from base, how much they get paid when working a flight vs. deadheading, etc., etc.

It doesn’t necessarily excuse bumping a paying passenger, but it does tend to explain it. It is very far from being as simple as “why don’t they just schedule it in advance” - leadership requirements, language requirements, swaps, trades, out of base pickups, seniority, priority, ground training, passport/visas, and all the other things that keep me employed.


It seems like one of the issues with the infamous flight was that there were actually two airlines involved. The crewmembers were from Republic, a regional airline that operates flights on behalf of United (and Delta and American). It sounds like they didn’t communicate their staff needs to United, and the Republic employees ended up blindsiding the United gate staff at the last minute. This left them scrambling to to find four seats, and unfortunately their haste made a lot of waste. The new one hour policy means that if this happens again, the United gate staff can say “sorry, you’re SOL because of the one hour rule” rather than feel pressured to make bad decisions in a panic.


And here is a list of US airlines that have filed for bankruptcy (chapter 7 & 11).

Here is a long list of US airlines that are defunct.

Make of it what you will.

USskylink.com is quoting a rate of $3062, to fly four people from O’Hare to Louisville KY at 2:00 this afternoon in a piston-powered charter aircraft. That would be cheaper than paying four passengers $800 each , not even counting the accommodations.

What would be he down side of this option, compared to the downside of having armed thugs haul screaming bleeding passengers off flights in front of YouTube cameras?

Assuming United really did need to get these crew members to another airport (which is a fair assumption under the circumstances in Atlanta) they still handled this wrong. They knew for quite some time they’d be stuck in this situation and should have started rerouting crew from around the country early on. They should have also rerouted flights to make extra room for passengers they knew were backed up in multiple airports, even adding flights if necessary to accommodate extra crew as well as the backlog of passengers. I know it’s not as easy these days the way airport space has been heavily allotted in hubs and keeping costs down means they aren’t keeping any margin in the number of aircraft available but the end result is this kind of nonsense. Even if they have to put crew on buses and route them that way they could have alleviated a lot of the problems. Unfortunately the airline is risky in business terms and maintaining low fares results in plane packing, over booking and this occasional logjam. Although a lot of us consider service a factor in choosing an airline (I hesitate to fly anything but Southwest) ticket prices are still the major deciding factor to most passengers and the result is a slim margin of error in scheduling and booking. Flying was a lot easier in ye olde days of $99 SuperSaver flights, planes frequently had unfilled seats, a ticket could be exchanged for a flight on another airline, boarding was less of a cattle call, but those airlines would go bankrupt overnight also. I had a great time on a flight from Miami on Eastern as their final flights were taking off, we partied in the back of the plane with the stews (I guess you’d call them ‘atts’ these days), but the price of tickets began to steadily rise at that point as the shakeout continued.

Maybe because
A) That wasn’t the plan
B) In all the history of all the bumping industry wide that’s never happened before.

But mostly because
C) once a person or company calls the police (any police), the situation (any situation) is utterly out of their control. Though moreso for most US big city police than other forces.

None of the three are hard and fast arguments as to why this could not or should not be done.

A) Must “the plan” always be the same, regardless of circumsances?
B) How do you know no airline has ever chartered a light plane to shuttle crew?
C) The airline has a standing policy of turning over to the police what is, at the start, the responsibility of the airline to resolve, possibly with an alternative plan that would not require police backup.

I can truly appreciate the complexities of the logistics involved in providing air travel. And I guess I can appreciate that consumer demand for cheaper fares contributes to cutting margins ever more closely.

It impresses that the airlines could do any number of things to lessen the impact of these foreseeable difficulties. Admittedly, taking such precautions would impose costs on the airlines - which they would pass through to the customers. I suspect a significant portion of the outrage at this incident and the underlying practices is due to the manner in which those costs are imposed upon passengers.

Well, but the tickets they issue to their passengers bind the airline to its contract of carriage, I think. It’s not clear to me that United’s contract of carriage permits bumping passengers for crew. Rule 25 sets forth procedures for denying boarding to a passenger when a flight is “oversold,” but Rule 1 defines “oversold” to mean “more passengers than available seats,” and “passengers” is defined to exclude “members of the crew.”

The problem is that “deadhead time” (i.e. time spent moving from one work location to the next) counts as duty time. So if they rode in a car rather than a much faster airplane, that would negatively impact their work availability; and since a car is much slower than an airplane it also might not have worked from a scheduling standpoint–it might not have gotten them there by the time they needed to be there.

As for chartering a flight–that might work, it might not, but it takes time to get that set up–time that might not have been available.

It’s referring specifically to the crew of that particular flight.


If the seat is used by deadheading crew, then it’s not available.

So what is the deadheading crew? If not crew, are they passengers? And if they are passengers, are they subject to being bumped?

Your explanation seems to classify them differently, depending on whatever works out to the convenience and financial benefit of the company.

I could think of countless ways this could be prevented. Unfortunately, all of them would cost the company more $ (which they would pass on to ticket buyers.)

BTW, as far as I could tell, in this instance, a limo or chartered plane could easily have gotten them from Chicago to Louisville in time for their next day’s duty.

The idea that a crew member sitting in a seat counts as duty time strikes me as odd. Are they paid for that time? At what rate? Is it presumed to reduce their ability to effectively and safely perform their duties afterwards?

Traveling for work is work. When I go on a business trip and travel on a weekday, I’m being paid to sit in a seat on a plane. Why should it be any different for airline employees?

My understanding was that there are regulatory limits on how much a crew can work over a certain period. Seems to me that sitting in a seat would be less physically and mentally demanding than doing one’s job. Whether an employee gets paid for travel time impresses me as somewhat different from whether “commuting” time renders one incapable of working in the future.

An odd situation, that this non-airline person has never thought much about. Of course, I tend to be like Seinfeld - I don’t just want them to TAKE my reservation… :smiley:

But it also seems unreasonable to assume that an employee who just flew 500 miles from home is ready to start a 14-hour shift.