LOS ANGELES -- Based on the latest numbers, America's major airlines are doing a better job of getting us to our destinations on time and with our luggage in tow.
Not only is the rate of lost luggage lower than it has been in years, the on-time performance for the nation's biggest airlines reached a record 88.6 percent in November, the best rate since the Bureau of Transportation Statistics began keeping track of the numbers in 1987.
But there is a growing trend that spells trouble for travelers: More passengers are getting bumped from flights.
In the first nine months of 2009, the rate of ticketed passengers who were denied boarding was 1.22 per 10,000 travelers, compared to 1.12 in the comparable period in 2008.
That equates to nearly 54,000 passengers involuntarily bumped.
The increase is largely a result of the slumping economy, which has reduced airline demand and prompted carriers to eliminate flights and fill planes to the max -- or beyond. Indeed, it is no secret that airlines routinely overbook planes because they expect some passengers won't show up.
How much airlines overbook varies by carrier, route and even the makeup of the passengers.
Business-class passengers who are flying for meetings or conferences are more likely to miss a flight because of scheduling conflicts than a family that has been planning for months to visit grandma for the holidays. Thus, airlines may overbook more seats on commuter flights heavily favored by business travelers.
"It literally varies on a flight-to-flight, day-to-day basis," said Tim Winship, publisher of www.frequentflier.com, a Web site that reports on the industry's frequent flier programs.
Overbooking is not an exact science, and when airlines miscalculate the "no-show factor" they must bump passengers from full flights.
Still, you have rights if the flight you are scheduled to board has been overbooked.
If a plane is overbooked, airlines are required by federal law to first try to get passengers to voluntarily give up their seats. That is when you can make the most of the situation.
The airline gate agents will first try to entice passengers to give up seats with an offer of a free ticket on a later flight plus cash or a voucher for a future flight.
Winship said passengers can haggle with the gate agents. You can even ask for a free meal voucher or a pass for the airlines' VIP lounge in addition to a free airline ticket. Don't be surprised if the agent tries to low-ball you. The airlines are trying to spend as little as possible to get you to your destination.
But don't get too greedy, Winship warns, because the gate agents might reject your offer, knowing that other passengers may be willing to give up their seats for less.
Things get a bit more complicated if an airline can't get enough passengers to voluntary give up seats. By law, if the airline denies you a seat because of overbooking but arranges to put you on another flight that arrives within an hour of your original arrival time, the carrier is not obligated to compensate you.
If, however, the airline bumps you and can't get you on a flight that arrives within two hours of your original arrival time, the carrier must compensate you double the value of your original one-way fare, up to $800. If you are bumped and the airline gets you on a flight that arrives within two hours of your original arrival time, the carrier must compensate you with 100 percent of the value of the ticket, up to a maximum of $400. The rules vary for international flights.
You can haggle with the airlines about getting that compensation in cash or in airline credits.
So, who is most likely to get bumped?
Under federal law, airline carriers can establish policies to determine who is first to be bumped so long as the rules do not "cause any unjust or unreasonable preferences or prejudice."
Industry experts say airlines are most likely to bump you if you paid the cheapest fare, are flying alone and you show up to the gate at the last minute.
On the other hand, business-class or first-class passengers who have a reserved seat are probably very low on the bumping pecking order, said Rick Seaney, founder of www.farecompare.com, which keeps tracks of airline trends.
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