What can you do to avoid it?
We’re sure you’ve seen the news coverage of a US man who was dragged from his seat on a United Airlines flight, and the subsequent outrage at overbooking that has followed.
Did you know that overbooking is an extremely common practice for airlines? Most of us will never be affected, but there are a few things to be aware of.
Why Airlines Overbook
As a BBC opinion piece pointed out, “empty seats cost money” and airlines want to minimise their losses. Overbooking has been in place for many years, and most of the time passengers don’t notice a thing.
Most airlines actually specify in their terms and conditions that overbooking is allowed. When you purchase your ticket you are in effect agreeing to this, and most of the time it isn’t a problem.
Think about the last time you went to the theatre… there are usually one or two empty seats, even in a sold out show, because life happens. Whether it’s illness, a car breakdown, a family emergency, or a change of plans, chances are there will always be at least one or two no-shows.
Airlines anticipate this with overbooking or use free seats to transport their staff when required.
How It Usually Works
If all passengers do make it to the flight and there aren’t enough seats, those who check in last are usually moved to another flight – and compensated if they experience a delay.
This generally happens at the check-in counter, or even before check-in in some cases. We don’t know of many other incidents in which a passenger has been asked to leave the airplane after boarding, and this is certainly not how overbooking should be handled, in our opinion!
In the USA in 2015, it was reported that less than 0.008% of passengers were “bumped” from their flights due to overbooking, according to the BBC. That’s around 46 000 people, so it’s not common, but it can happen. “The majority of those would have been informed before they boarded the flight,” said Charles Leocha, the founder of passenger advocacy group Travelers United. He could not remember seeing a passenger violently dragged off a plane.
In the case of the United Airlines incident, passengers were offered $400 and then $800 as an incentive to disembark, as well as accommodation for the night and a replacement flight the next day. When nobody volunteered, the airline selected passengers at random, and then called security.
Following an investigation of the incident, United Airlines has said that it will now offer compensation of up to $10,000 (£7,800) to passengers who give up their seat on an overbooked flight.
What Can You Do?
If you decide to accept the offer of compensation, you should always negotiate a better deal! Also make sure you get the offer in writing before you leave your seat so there's no question of what you're owed afterwards. UK travel insurance does not cover being bumped due to overbooking, so you can only claim from the airline.
We don’t believe the extreme measures were called for in the case of the United incident, or that overbooking should be dealt with once passengers have boarded a flight, and we’re fairly confident that most airlines would agree.
In the highly unlikely event of being asked to leave a flight after boarding, we’d suggest remaining calm (the best way to negotiate more compensation!), get everything in writing, and take up the issue with airline management later on to ensure that you are fully compensated for time, expenses and inconvenience.
Checking in early is the best way to avoid being bumped to another flight before boarding. Ideally, check in online as soon as possible (this usually opens 24 hours prior to departure) or arrive at the airport in good time. Allow at least two hours before international flights.
Frequent fliers are less likely to be moved due to overbooking, says the BBC, as are passengers paying higher prices such as premium economy, business or first class.
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