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United Airlines bumps passengers at high rate, but is improving

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In a video that quickly went viral, a passenger is shown shrieking and bloodied as he was forcibly removed from an overbooked United plane at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport Sunday night by police officers. He refused to leave the plane, sayin
In a video that quickly went viral, a passenger is shown shrieking and bloodied as he was forcibly removed from an overbooked United plane at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport Sunday night by police officers. He refused to leave the plane, sayin

United Airlines, over the past five years, bumped passengers involuntarily from its flights at one of the highest rates among major airlines, according to federal transportation data.

The airline drew criticism this week after a video went viral showing security officials dragging a male passenger from a United flight that it had overbooked.

Federal statistics show that in a five-year span ending with 2016, United Airlines bumped more than 42,500 passengers (who were holding confirmed reservations) involuntarily from flights because the company had overbooked the flight.

That equals about 1.06 involuntary bumps for every 10,000 passengers United served during those years, which was a higher rate than only two other major airlines in the country during those years.

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EspressJet Airlines, which operates flights under the United Express, American Eagle and Delta Connection names, had the highest rate of about 2.09 involuntary bumps per 10,000 passengers, followed by SkyWest Airlines, which had a rate of about 2.03.

United was trailed fairly closely by Southwest (1.01) and Frontier (0.97).

Still, the data show that United's track record improved considerably over those years.

In 2012, United's rate of involuntary bumps was 1.83. But last year it was 0.43, which was better than the average of 0.62 among major airlines.

United's improving numbers are in line with the broader trend within the industry in recent years, as major airlines, collectively, have lowered the rate at which passengers are involuntarily bumped.

Airlines are allowed to sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane, and they routinely overbook flights because some people do not show up.

It's not unusual for airlines to offer travel vouchers to encourage people to give up their seats voluntarily.

If that approach doesn't work, airlines can demand that passengers give up their seats.

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Airlines are required by federal rules to give all passengers who are bumped involuntarily a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier decides which passengers get bumped. Such passengers also frequently are entitled to compensation, depending on how much they paid for their ticket and how long they are delayed.

United has also bumped passengers voluntarily at a relatively high rate in recent years.

In the five-year stretch ending in 2016, United bumped more than 346,000 passengers voluntarily, or at a rate of about 8.6 per 10,000 passengers, federal data show.

Three other airlines had higher rates: ExpressJet, at 17.3 voluntary bumps per 10,000 passengers; SkyWest, at 15.7; and Delta, at 10.1.

The data come from Air Travel Consumer reports published by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings.

Officials from United did not respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon.

Passengers bumped from overbooked flights, by airline Figures cover the five-year stretch from 2012 through 2016. The table is sorted to show airlines by the involuntary bump rates column, from highest to lowest.

Bumps represent passengers who held confirmed reservations and were denied boarding a flight because it was oversold. Voluntary bumps represent passengers who gave up their seat voluntarily on an oversold flight in exchange for compensation. Figures do not include passengers affected by cancelled, delayed, or diverted flights.
Airline Voluntary bumps Involuntary bumps Total passengers Involuntary bump rate, per 10,000 passengers
ExpressJet Airlines 238,403 28,737 137,430,937 2.09
SkyWest Airlines 215,926 27,942 137,355,870 2.03
United Airlines 346,230 42,569 402,176,641 1.06
Southwest 417,452 64,339 639,574,714 1.01
Frontier Airlines 14,879 5,779 59,483,469 0.97
American 252,959 27,808 456,998,548 0.61
Spirit Airlines 17,033 1,613 35,428,814 0.46
Alaska Airlines 25,501 4,352 101,218,193 0.43
Delta Air Lines 585,497 18,640 580,803,338 0.32
Jetblue Airways 6,299 3,957 151,006,340 0.26
Hawaiian Airlines 3,104 534 50,776,731 0.11
Virgin America 5,407 302 33,722,107 0.09
SOURCE: U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Aviation Enforcement and Proceedings

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Matt Rocheleau can be reached at matthew.rocheleau@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mrochele