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It turns out airlines are actually doing better — and getting bumped is rare

A United Airlines customer service representative helped passengers to reschedule their travel plans at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago in 2011.EPA/KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI

The forced removal of a United Airlines passenger earlier this week prompted consumer outrage over the man’s rough treatment, and the practice of bumping ticketed passengers from overbooked flights. But passengers take solace: getting involuntarily bumped from a flight is rare.

It’s so unusual that you have a better chance of getting struck by lightning in your lifetime than bumped on a given flight. In 2016, the 12 major US airlines reported an “involuntary denied boarding” rate of .62 per 10,000 passengers — roughly one passenger out of every 20,000.

And while the United episode drew ire and calls for reform from consumer groups and politicians, several recent studies found that airlines performed better in 2016 than they have in decades.


Boston’s Logan International Airport served a record 36 million passengers in 2016. Going by the national average, that means about 2,200 passengers of the 36 million were involuntarily bumped from flights last year.

“It’s a relatively small number,” said Dean Headley, an associate professor of marketing research at Wichita State University who has coauthored the Airline Quality Rating since 1991.

On the same day that United was making headlines for the dramatic mistreatment of the passenger who was being dragged off a flight to make room for crew members, Headley and coauthor Brent Bowen of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Arizona released their annual report. Millions more saw the viral United video than the airline quality study, but the professors’ long-running scientific ratings system gives a more clear-headed look at the industry.

In their report, which is based on numbers provided by the US Department of Transportation, Headley and Bowen found that overall airline quality improved in 2016 over 2015 in the categories of ontime performance, involuntary denied boardings, mishandled bags, and customer complaints.


In fact, the professors found 2016 had the lowest number of involuntarily bumped passengers since they began the annual study in 1991.

“What happened with United was an anomaly in many ways,” Headley said.

United didn’t score high on the report, but it also wasn’t at the bottom. The top three domestic carriers for 2016 were Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and Virgin America. At the bottom were American Airlines, ExpressJet Airlines, and Spirit Airlines. United ranked eighth out of the 12 airlines surveyed and showed improvement over its 2015 score.

“The perception of United is that it has never been known as particularly customer friendly,” Headley said.

The Airline Quality Report is consistent with findings from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, a government agency that reported 2016 flight cancellation, mishandled baggage, and bumping rates were the lowest in decades.

According to the website , which helps consumers seek compensation from denied boardings, you’re more likely to get bumped from a flight on Southwest Airlines, JetBlue, or American Airlines than United. Hawaiian Airlines, Delta, and Virgin America had the fewest number of denied boardings.

But with United in the headlines, AirHelp saw the number of claims against the beleaguered airline increase by 96 percent this week, according to Cecilia Minges, a spokeswoman for the company.

Last week the personal finance website WalletHub released its own airline ratings report, which ranked United number 4 of the top 12 US carriers. The findings were based not only on baggage, departures, and complaints, but also animal deaths, in-flight comfort, and cost.


The WalletHub survey put Alaska Airlines, Delta, and SkyWest Airlines at the top of its list, with perennial poor performers Spirit and Frontier Airlines at the bottom of the pack.

Even though United fared better than its competitors in these studies, the airline has a long road ahead if it is to repair its reputation, which took a nose-dive after Dr. David Dao was violently pulled off a flight headed to Louisville, Ky., on Sunday.

On Thursday, Dao filed an emergency “bill of discovery” against the carrier in Illinois State Court demanding that evidence documenting Sunday’s “re-accommodation” aboard the plane be “preserved and protected.”

The 69-year-old doctor was one of four people selected to lose their seats on the plane — just before it was scheduled to depart from O’Hare International Airport — to make room for United crew members the airline said were needed in Louisville the next day. He refused repeatedly, saying he had patients to see in the morning and needed to get home. The flight crew called security, and officers violently removed him from his seat, dragging him down the aisle while other passengers cried out in horror.

Dr. David Dao was removed from a United Airlines flight in Chicago on Sunday. Audra D. Bridges via AP

Dao suffered a ‘‘significant’’ concussion and broken nose, and he lost two front teeth, one of his attorneys said Thursday. He has been discharged from a hospital but he will require reconstructive surgery, the attorney said.

United CEO Oscar Munoz apologized for the overbooking in a public statement Monday, but in an internal letter seen by NBC News, he accused the doctor of being “disruptive and belligerent.” Munoz has since appeared in television interviews and apologized further, recanting his initial response to the incident. “No one should ever be mistreated this way,’’ Munoz said.


A United spokeswoman told the Associated Press on Wednesday that all passengers aboard that flight will receive compensation equal to the cost of their plane tickets. The passengers can take their compensation in cash, travel credits, or miles.

But with the airline now serving as a punch line for late-night comedians and starring in Internet memes, the recent rankings and apologies might have little effect on perception.

“This is one of the most significant PR blunders in years,” said Newton-based public relations specialist David Ball, president of Ball Consulting Group. “It may take years for them to come back from this. First they denied passengers wearing leggings, and now this, which is far more significant. It’s a long way from their old motto of ‘Fly the Friendly Skies.’ They need to bring in experts and train employees and change the culture.”

Chris Ann Goddard, president of the Marblehead-based PR firm CGPR, said in an e-mail, “There were so many errors I stopped counting.”

“It will be a long time before the consensus for United will be wheels up,” she said. “More likely it will be buckle up.”

Christopher Muther can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther