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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Unhurried Passengers Can Gamble on a Free Flight

Ever since I took Allegheny Airlines to court for passenger overbooking, consumers, busi­nessmen and families have told me about their frustrations over arriving with confirmed reservations at the airline gate only to be turned away.

Tens of thousands of air passengers every year experience overbooking and the fragility of the term “confirmed reservation.” The air­lines admit that they intentionally overbook their planes but excuse their practice by citing the problem of no-shows. The resolution of the overbooking problem should not be long in coming. With the U.S. Su­preme Court decision in the Allegheny case up­holding Judge Charles Richey’s lower court decision that overbooking was a common law misrepresentation. the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) is readying new rules which should give passengers fairer treatment.

THE CAB IS PROPOSING new regulations to confine oversale to people who volunteer to remain behind and to assure that almost all overbooked passengers be entitled to denied boarding compensation without present loop­holes and beyond present dollar limitations.

Until these rules come out (and maybe afterwards as well), here is what airline pas­sengers should know about overbooking:

First, notice the overbooking warning on your ticket. This is the airlines’ device to es­cape legal responsibility for overbooking you on the grounds that you were put on notice. Most judges will think this is a dubious de­fense. What the notice does tell you is that the airlines don’t mean what they say when they give you confirmed reservations.

Second, the “no-show” argument by the air­lines is an excuse. Most no-shows are regis­tered due to airline responsibility including clerical, computer errors and delayed connect­ing flights. More important, innocent passengers should not be bumped because of deliberate no-shows. Still more pertinent is the way Eastern Airlines has handled the problem for years.

Eastern has a “Leisure Class” category. Passengers who are confirmed beyond the actual capacity of the airplane are given conditional reservations. If they are unable to obtain a seat after showing up at the airport, they are given a free ride on the next available flight. Thus, passengers are given honest information before they leave home and can make final plans accordingly.

Third, there is an effective self-help way for passengers to act when they find themselves overbooked at the airline counter. Ask the supervisor of that departing gate to conduct a quick auction.

THIS REMEDY IS simple and equitable to all parties. The airline employee asks the pas­sengers either in the waiting room or on the airplane to volunteer their seats in return for a free ride on the next plane. Almost always there are some passengers who are not in a hurry but who would be delighted to obtain a free ride. They would relinquish their seats to the overbooked passengers who have some ur­gency in arriving on the first plane.

Passengers who have used this approach find it works well. Sometimes the airline em­ployee will try to say that federal regulations or airline policy prevents such an auction. Tell them you know this not a legitimate response and that you quietly insist that such a volun­tary system be put into effort. The airlines always use the CAB regulations as an excuse for mistreating passenger rights. After ail, the airlines write most of these regulations in the first place to escape the kind of responsibility they ordinarily would have to their consumers under the common law.

Fourth, passengers should know that they can go to small claims courts with their airline grievances. Letting the airline know this some­times elevates the company to a suitable level of candor and responsiveness.

Readers who wish to obtain a free pamphlet titled “Facts and Advice for Airlines Passengers” may send a self-addressed, stamped en­velope to the Aviation Consumer Action Project, P.O. Box 19029, Washington, D.C. 20036. This pamphlet discusses your rights as an overbooked passenger as well as a variety of leading complaints which passengers have with airlines. And it advises you on possible courses of action.