Delta Air Lines began Friday offering its agents greater flexibility for dealing with overbooked flights, including eye-popping compensation up to $9,950 to travelers who agree to give up their seats.
While it sounds generous, tickets themselves such as a last-minute fare from Atlanta to Johannesburg can reach those heights. But the memo that Delta sent its workers reinforced the company’s priority for reaching an agreement with passengers voluntarily over missing a flight, rather than involuntarily denying boarding.
United Airlines has suffered a firestorm of criticism this week, all coming after Chicago aviation department security officers dragged a passenger off a flight Sunday in order to make room for a crew member. The passenger had declined an offer of $800 to take a flight to Louisville the next day.
Congress, the Transportation Department, the city of Chicago and United are each investigating the incident, in which passenger David Dao suffered a concussion and lost two teeth. United CEO Oscar Munoz has apologized and the airline expects to complete its review by the end of the month.
Delta CEO Ed Bastian told reporters during a coincidental earnings call Wednesday that no new legislation or regulations are needed to deal with overbooking because travelers could choose different airlines based on bumping. Delta denied boarding involuntarily among the least in the industry, just once in every 100,000 passengers last year, or 1,238 times.
For comparison, United involuntarily denied boarding at more than four times that rate per passenger enplaned, or 3,765 times. The largest dozen airlines involuntarily denied boarding 40,629 times, according to department figures.
But airlines found 434,425 passengers willing to take a payment and perhaps a hotel room to voluntarily take another flight. Those arrangements are typically made at the gate, rather than after passengers have boarded the plane.
The Delta memo reminded staffers of those statistics offered greater flexibility in compensation “to reinforce our commitment to our agents and their ability to care for our customers.”
A customer-service agent will be able to offer $2,000 per change from the previous $800. A higher-ranking worker such as an operations service manager could offer up to $9,950, from the previous cap of $1,350.
“If more volunteers are needed, solicit early and often,” the memo states. “Be prepared to explain options to customers traveling to their final destinations.”
For comparison, the Transportation Department requires airlines pay passengers in exchange for being involuntarily bumped. The compensation tops out at four times a flier's one-way ticket cost -- up to a maximum of $1,350 -- for those whose arrive at their final destination more than two hours late (four hours internationally) because of being bumped involuntarily. The penalty is two times the one-way fare -- capped at $675 -- for fliers who arrive to their final destinations one to two hours late (one to four hours, internationally) because of being bumped.
The nearly five-figure compensation plan at Delta sounds generous, but tickets occasionally get that pricey. A last-minute Delta One ticket Saturday from Atlanta to Johannesburg listed at $9,740 on Friday afternoon.