As US Congress prepares to hold hearings on airline customer service, the practice of overbooking flights is coming under scrutiny with airline policies being closely watched.

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines announced this week that it will end the practice of overbooking during the current quarter. New York-based JetBlue Airways already had a policy in place to not overbook before the recent United Airlines bumping incident that brought public attention to overbooking and airlines' rights to have passengers removed from flights.

“JetBlue does not overbook flights,” JetBlue states on its website. “However some situations, such as flight cancelations and re-accommodation, might create a similar situation.”

Other US carriers are continuing the practice of overbooking, at least for now. Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian called it a “valid business process.” But Delta and United said they have now authorized employees to offer passengers up to $9,500 and $10,000, respectively, to give up their seats, a considerable increase in the amounts offered before the United incident, when law enforcement officers were called in to physically remove a paying passenger who refused to give up his seat.

Three US senators—Al Franken (D-Minnesota), Maggie Hassan (D-New Hampshire) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii)—have introduced the “Transparency, Improvements and Compensation to Keep Every Ticketholder Safe,” or TICKETS, bill. The proposed legislation would prohibit airlines from removing passengers from flights once they have cleared the gate boarding area; eliminate the legally mandated cap of $1,350 in compensation for an involuntarily bumped passenger; require airlines to specify overbooking and bumping policies both on the passenger’s ticket itinerary and on a sign at each airport gate; require the US Department of Transportation to review overbooking practices and determine whether the number of allowable overbooked passengers per flight should be regulated; and require flight crews being transported on a flight to check in 60 minutes before departure.

United yesterday announced a set of new policies and practices that address several provisions of the TICKETS bill.

Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said his airline was in a position to stop overbooking because the number of passenger no-shows had dropped to a point where it would not cost much money to stop overbooking. “The reason that we do overbooking is it helps generate revenue on that flight and keep fares low,” Kelly explained. “So we don’t want to do this in a way that would cost our customers more money.”

In defending overbooking, Delta's Bastian said it came down to proper management. “It’s not a question of whether you overbook. It’s how you manage an overbooking situation,” he said recently, noting that just one in 100,000 Delta passengers was involuntarily bumped in 2016.

Bastian cautioned against one-size-fits-all legislation, noting a flight can end up overbooked because of weather-related flight delays and cancelations and, in some cases, airlines may even decide to bump passengers for aircraft weight and balance safety reasons.

In the United incident, the flight was overbooked by one passenger. Gate agents eventually addressed that situation, but at boarding time four crew members arrived and were presented as "must-rides," so the airline began a process of selecting four passengers to be removed involuntarily to make room for the crew.

The US House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee will hold an oversight hearing May 2 to examine US airlines' customer service policies and related issues.

Among those scheduled to give testimony are United CEO Oscar Munoz and executives from American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Southwest.

“Next week’s oversight hearing will give committee members an opportunity to get much-needed answers about airline customer service policies and what is being done to improve service for the flying public,” Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pennsylvania) said.

The Senate will hold a similar hearing May 4.

Aaron Karp aaron.karp@penton.com