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Will Overbooking Ever Be Abolished?


At the check-in kiosk, flyers are now often asked if they would be willing to consider a later flight in exchange for compensation. The practice of overbooking – or selling more seats than are available on an aircraft – helps airlines ensure they fly full. Even with technology and a promise to customer service, will the madness of overbooking ever come to an end?

Checking in at the kiosk, there may only be one thing less dreaded than seeing “SSSS” on your boarding pass, but a little more disappointing than not being added to the upgrade list: the screen asking if you would be willing to give up your seat in exchange for a credit towards a future flight. It could mean your regularly scheduled flight may have been oversold.

Overbooking has been used by airlines for decades as a safeguard to flying half-empty aircraft. Gambling on the fact that some flyers may elect to same-day switch to different flights, or miss their flight entirely, carriers will intentionally sell more tickets for a flight than they have available seats. As a result, airlines ensure their numbers stay relatively positive – sometimes at the expense of flyers.

This has created a point of contention between flyers and carriers, to the point where many are demanding action. After the “Draggate” incident, United Airlines promised flyers they would always be asked ahead of time if they would be okay with giving up their seats for a voucher. Across the pond, British Airways is investing in a technology company in the hopes they can reduce their reliance on selling too many seats. While these are all nice ideas, will overbooking ever truly come to an end?

It’s possible that overbooking isn’t as big of a problem as we think it is. Looking at domestic data from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) monthly Air Travel Consumer Report, FlyerTalk found that among the 12 biggest airlines in America (including regional carriers SkyWest Airlines and ExpressJet Airlines), only 470,945 passengers were reported to be denied boarding, voluntarily or otherwise. Compared to over 660 million flyers who successfully arrived at their final destination, that’s less than .08 percent of flyers who were inconvenienced.

In 2017 – the year of “Draggate” – that number dropped even further. Only 364,926 flyers were not able to board their regularly booked flight, compared to over 680 million who flew with an American carrier. This breaks down to less than .06 percent of all flyers on reporting American carriers.

Of course, these numbers are not perfect. They do not take into account what happens when flights are canceled during irregular operations, such as adverse weather conditions or ground stops at other airports. They also don’t take into consideration how many flyers are inconvenienced in other ways – including lost luggage – when things go awry.

Overall, airline oversales are one of the least complained about concerns for flyers, as reflected by the available statistics. Even flyers aren’t as concerned about overbooking. The DOT data shows that only 2.9 percent of formal complaints received by the DOT were about the practice. Much more relevant were flight problems (29.5 percent), reservations, ticketing and boarding practices (11.8 percent) and fare prices (9.2 percent). In the same month, the DOT only fielded nine complaints about oversales from flyers aboard foreign airlines.

While overbooking is still an inconvenience is a problem, it is getting better. It may not go away soon, but we can all be rest assured that we have some of the best odds – over 99.9995 percent – of getting to our destination without getting stuck at the airport.


[Image: Flickr/Steve Mays]

Comments are Closed.
ioto1902 March 2, 2018

Overbooking is not specific to the airline industry. As another poster said, it's a win-win. When an airline tries to sell you an upgrade at the check-in counter, chances are they have an overbooking situation. Don't enter into that deal. You may later end up upgraded for free !

BMGRAHAM March 2, 2018

Overbooking makes sense. In most cases those giving up their seats are richly rewarded for doing something that doesn't really cause them much inconvenience. The result is that the plane doesn't have empty seats and more people can get the flight they want,. It makes total sense to anyone that understands flying.

Berniecfc March 1, 2018

The boys and girls from the major airlines are being very naughty when they over book flights. The passenger has already paid for the seat so the airline isn't losing money. If you want to change your flight you are dinged $250 for the privilege. The $250 is to compensate for the revenue loss. It's still $250 if the original ticket costs less. Also if the airline sells the seat you've already paid for, I don't know of anyone yet that has received a $250 refund. Also when they had their wrists slapped by Congress they promised to stop this bad practice.

trvlnman March 1, 2018

Just to clarify an incorrect comment quoted more than once in this thread - if someone buys a seat, then doesn’t show up for it - and the airline fills that seat with another paying passenger - they are not double dipping. The seat was sold once, to the 2nd passenger. The 1st passenger (the no show) can refund that ticket, or if it is non-refundable, apply its value toward another ticket within 12 months for a fee. In neither case did the airline collect two fares for one seat. Interestingly enough, JetBlue has a no longstanding overbooking policy yet the September 2016 Air Travel Consumer Report shows they involuntarily bumped 2,140 passengers YTD that year. Their denied boarding rate of 0.82 far exceeded Delta (.09, with 912 pax denied boarding) and American (.66, with 6,598 denied boarding). JetBlue said this was mostly due to last-minute equipment downsizing. Still, denied boarding is denied boarding. Luckily most of these thousands of people act like ladies and gentlemen and fight the system through the usual channels as unhappy as they are, rather than screaming as police forcibly remove them while the iPhones are rolling.

modern March 1, 2018

Math check. It's 99.93% get there, not 99.9995%. Still sounds good, but that is over 1,000 denied boardings per day. Or on average 4.5% of all commercial flights per day are denying boarding to someone. How many movie theaters turn away ticketholders? Broadway plays? Concerts? They all have no shows too. Even hotels rarely, if ever, don't have rooms anymore when you show up.