The good news is that airlines are less likely to oversell flights nowadays. The bad news is that when a flight is overbooked, passengers are more likely to be denied boarding involuntarily.
How could this be? The New York Times explains:
Last year, 13 out of every 10,000 passengers were bumped on domestic flights -- or 762,422 out of a total of 582 million. That was down from over 20 per 10,000 passengers in 1999, according to the Department of Transportation. In over 90 percent of cases, airlines found volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for some compensation.
But at the same time:
While fewer people are getting bumped over all, the share of passengers being denied boarding involuntarily is going up. Last year, 1.19 of every 10,000 passengers had their seats taken away outright, the highest rate since 1996.
Basically, the reason involuntary bumps are up is that the airlines have reduced the number of flights, thereby increasingly the likelihood that planes will depart at full capacity. When flights are oversold, the airlines are having more trouble finding volunteers willing to be bumped because the next departure is also probably sold out (or even overbooked). Anyone volunteering to be bumped might not leave until the day after his or her originally scheduled flight.
For many travelers, departing a few hours later is no big deal, especially when the tradeoff for volunteering to be bumped is a couple hundred bucks in airline vouchers. But if you have to spend the night? Fewer travelers are willing to volunteer for such an inconvenience, no matter what the compensation.
And what kind of flyer is most likely to get bumped without having a say in the matter? Somebody who got a deal on the flight, as the Times reports:
Not every passenger is equal when it comes to being bumped: business-class travelers and frequent fliers holding elite status are much less likely to get bumped. The last in line are leisure travelers holding discounted fares.
And why is that? Like so many things, it all comes down to money. For one thing, the airlines don't want to make their best customers (presumably, the frequent flyers and the folks in business-class) angry by bumping them. But also, it's more cost-effective for an airline to bump somebody who bought a cheap ticket. Here are the rules for compensation in the case of involuntary bumping, as spelled out by the Department of Transportation:
* If the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after your original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay you an amount equal to your one-way fare to your final destination that day, with a $400 maximum.
* If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles (200% of your one-way fare, $800 maximum).
So, if you were delayed more than two hours and your ticket only cost $75, the airline would only have to pay you $150 if you got bumped. Bumping a passenger in business class on that same flight could cost the airline $800. So it's pretty obvious which passenger the airline is going to bump.