United Airlines says bumped passengers will get up to $10,000 in compensation, but beware the fine print

More for less.
More for less.
Image: Reuters/Kamil Krzaczynski
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It took a viral video showing the violent removal of a bloodied passenger from one of its flights to do it, but United Airlines is trying to improve its customer service.

The US airline repented yet again for the April 9 incident and unveiled improvements to its procedures on April 27, including “limiting the use of law enforcement to safety and security issues only.” United came under fire on social media and from investors after airport police dragged passenger David Dao off a flight to make room for crew riding to another assignment.

The airline also took a page from the playbook of rival Delta Air Lines, which earlier this month said it would offer up to $9,950 to bumped passengers. United said it would offer compensation worth as much as $10,000 to passengers who voluntarily take another flight when the airline overbooks. Airlines routinely sell more seats than they have available to ensure the most seats possible are filled if passengers cancel.

United provided a laundry list of things it promises to improve, such as reducing overbooking and not ousting seated passengers from its aircraft, all part of CEO’s Oscar Munoz’s vow to become the standard bearer for US airlines. But airlines, which have recently mastered lining their own pockets, won’t likely be lining those of the customers they inconvenience as well.

The ceiling of $10,000 in compensation will be paid in travel certificates, not in cash, United told Quartz. It wasn’t immediately clear if passengers would be required to use the compensation in one place, such as on a first-class ticket, or if they could split it up among several flights. Second, that compensation limit is for passengers who voluntarily agree to take a later flight when the airline needs them to vacate their seats. And third, it is a ceiling. There is no guarantee that the airline will offer that much.

For passengers who must fly, say they are going to a wedding, funeral or an important business meeting, and refuse to take the bump, the compensation is less generous. United says it will follow the federally-mandated limit of $1,350 in compensation for passengers who are involuntarily bumped, which United had more of than its competitors between 2008 and 2016.

Update: The post has been updated to note that United had a higher, historical rate of involuntarily bumped passengers between 2008 and 2016.