Bumped air passengers may get more money

U.S. airlines may be forced to more than triple payments to $624 for passengers involuntarily bumped from flights.

The increase, which would be the first since 1978, is among five options being studied by the Transportation Department. The agency also is considering keeping the current $200 penalty, raising it 45% to $290, doubling it to $400 or making the amount equal to the ticket price.

(The Transportation Department is accepting comments on the proposed changes over the next two months. For more information, click here.)

“It’s way over time” for action, said Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project in Washington. “We called for it for seven years ago to be adjusted for inflation.”

The number of “bumpings” are increasing as planes get more crowded, adding to fliers’ travails when airlines already are experiencing record delays. Almost 56,000 U.S. passengers were involuntarily bumped in 2006, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics said.

The rate was 1.01 for every 10,000 fliers, the highest since 2000. This year’s first-quarter rate of 1.45 was the highest for the period since 1997.

Dave Castelveter, spokesman for the Air Transportation Assn., a trade group based in Washington, said airlines would “reserve comment on the proposal until we see it formally.” The “vast majority” of the time passengers accept free-travel vouchers to be voluntarily bumped, he said.

Voluntary bumpings outnumbered involuntary ones 8 to 1 in the first quarter, the Transportation Department said.

Passengers forcibly bumped get a maximum of $200 when the airline arranges alternate transportation that gets them to their destination within two hours of the scheduled arrival. Carriers that don’t meet the deadline pay a $400 maximum.

“Inflation has eroded the $200 and $400 limits,” Andrew Steinberg, assistant secretary for aviation and international affairs, wrote in the proposed rule. “In order to have the same purchasing power today as in 1978, the $400 limit would need to be $1,248.”