NEW YORK - Airlines bumped passengers off flights at the lowest rate on record last year, after United Airlines was pilloried when a passenger was dragged off a full plane.
The Transportation Department said Thursday that airlines bumped about 1 passenger in every 29,000 in 2017, roughly half the rate of the year before.
The figures don’t count passengers who accept travel vouchers or other offers to voluntarily give up their seat on an oversold flight. Using those offers airlines have been steadily reducing bumping rates for several years, but the trend gained momentum after the April incident in which airport security officers dragged a 69-year-old man off a United Express plane in Chicago.
Meanwhile, there were 117 long delays during which passengers were trapped in planes on the ground for hours, unable to reach an airport terminal. Most occurred in Atlanta and involved Delta flights — Atlanta is Delta’s biggest hub.
The government said 96 domestic flights were stuck on the ground at least three hours, including 77 during a power outage that shut down the Atlanta airport on Dec. 17. There were 14 others that occurred at the same airport during a snowstorm on Dec. 8.
Another 21 long delays involved international flights, with 19 during the Atlanta power failure.
Airlines can be fined if a domestic flight is stuck on the ground for over three hours or an international flight for more than four hours. The Transportation Department said it was investigating all the long delays.
United vaulted to the top of the government’s latest ratings for on-time flights, which cover December. Delta and Alaska Airlines were next, respectively.
JetBlue Airways had the worst record, with 1 in 4 December flights arriving at least 15 minutes late.
The rate of forcing passengers off oversold flights was the lowest since the Transportation Department started keeping records in 1995, beating the previous record set in 2016.
Airlines now are quicker to bribe passengers on oversold flights to give up their seats, usually by offering travel vouchers. Last year, 341,703 passengers volunteered their seats while airlines forced off or bumped 23,223.
After the United Express fiasco, United, Delta, American and others changed policies to reduce the need to bump passengers. Some gave airport agents authority to offer bigger bonuses for giving up a seat.
Southwest Airlines accounted for about one-third of bumped passengers — 8,279 in all — but Spirit Airlines had the highest bumping rate, at one in every 12,000 passengers.
Delta used voluntary offers the most — 128,331 Delta passengers voluntarily gave up a seat last year.