Terminal 250: Federal Regulation of Airline Overbooking
Every year, hundreds of thousands of passengers arrive at their local airport to discover that their flight is overbooked. Unbeknownst to most travelers, their damages for the airlines’ breach of contract are governed by federal regulation. Since 1978, 14 C.F.R § 250.5 has set a statutory cap of four hundred dollars for all passengers bumped from domestic flights. In this Note, Elliott Blanchard examines the effects of this provision on passenger and airline behavior by applying modern contract theory to the problem of airline overbooking. He begins by examining the economic forces that led airlines to overbook flights and the subsequent federal government regulatory response in the 1970s. He observes that while a uniform system of compensation for all passengers made sense during the period of airline regulation, increased heterogeneity in both carriers and passengers now make such a system inefficient. While the market for airline travel has changed dramatically since the end of regulation, the statutory ceiling on damages has remained constant. The author argues that this cap undercompensates passengers for breach by the airlines, and rewards the carriers that overbook aggressively. Given the information asymmetries regarding the likelihood of being bumped, airlines have the opportunity to exploit passengers who cannot accurately discount an airline’s probability of performance. As a solution, the author suggests a repeal of the maximum damage amount coupled with increased disclosure of airline overbooking rates, which would encourage airlines to compete on performance as well as price.