Overbooking: A Blessing and a Curse

A United Boeing 757 at LAX (Photo: James Dinsdale)

When passengers boarded United Express flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky on Sunday, they were most likely not expecting their short hop to become a subject of national media attention for the days to follow.

On the flight, a man was asked by a United gate agent to vacate his seat as it was needed for another passenger. The man refused, at which point the United employees quickly notified the police. Video of the incident quickly spread owing to the horrible treatment the man endured while being removed from the plane, leaving him bloodied and injured.

Though the reason for the incident actually turned out to be that a group of crewmembers needed to be on another flight in Louisville as soon as possible, most everyone, including United themselves, quickly called overbooking the culprit as for the reason the man was asked to vacate his seat on the aircraft.

Over 900 million people fly every year, and very few will ever be bumped from their seat involuntarily, and even fewer will ever face consequences like the man aboard United Express 3411 on Sunday.

Because of those small numbers, relatively few people understand how overbooking works and how to avoid any adverse effects it may have, even if they are among the most seasoned of travelers.

What is Overbooking?

Generally, overbooking refers to the process by which airlines sell more tickets than available seats on an aircraft. So, if an airline has 173 possible seats for revenue passengers on a Boeing 737 aircraft, the airline may sell just a few extra in order to compensate for those few who will not show up to the gate on time for one of numerous reasons.

Most airlines do so for one reason: their bottom line. The airline industry is one that lives off a few extra cents. Overall profit margins can rarely rise above a couple percent, and even that is a stellar number for the industry. So if an airline knows that, statistically, at least one passenger will not show up for a particular flight and will not be able to get a refund, they will be able to profit off that one passenger.

When that passenger shows up, they have to bump someone else, which is where things get tricky.

Many defend this policy, but many oppose it, too, especially when rare situations bring these policies to the scrutiny of the public eye. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to fault businesses for caring about how their balance sheet will look at the end of the year, and overbooking presents an opportunity for airlines to bump up their profits and stay in the black.

What Happens If They’re Overbooked

Thanks to extremely well-made booking systems and complicated algorithms, they can almost always predict with extreme accuracy how many people will either not show up to the airport, misconnect, or miss their flight for a variety of other reasons.

First, an airline will ask for volunteers to give up their seat and take a later flight, generally in exchange for travel vouchers, gift cards, or some other sort of compensation. There are a few travelers who will even jump at the opportunity to get bumped from a flight. Taking the cash in exchange for a small delay may just be worth it to them.

Delta even asks passengers to bid on how much compensation should be given in exchange for a bump, allowing those who bid the lowest to receive their compensation and take the next flight

But if an airline can’t find enough volunteers to leave their flight behind, they are forced to remove passengers according to their policies, which vary per airline.

United’s contract of carriage says unaccompanied minors and those with disabilities will be the last bumped from the flight, but does not offer any explanation beyond that.

American Airlines, on the other hand, will bump passengers in order of check in, with the last to check in being the first to be denied boarding. The carrier, however, says they take into account ticket costs, elite status, and what they call “severe hardships” before deciding who will be bumped.

In line with American’s policy, Delta primarily uses check-in order, too, while taking into account a passenger’s status and cabin, and unaccompanied minors, people with disabilities, and members of the military.

United had the highest rate of passengers involuntarily denied boarding out of the three US legacy airlines, with 11.6 passengers out of 100,000 bumped from their flight without compensation.

JetBlue, however, advertises that they do not overbook flights, which contributes to them having the lowest rate of involuntarily denied boardings of all U.S.-based airlines.

Everyone is likely to encounter an overbooking situation sometime during their travels. Some may jump at the chance to receive compensation and take a later flight. Some will walk down the jet bridge with the feeling of relief they weren’t one of the unlucky few to get bumped.

Some will get bumped. But most won’t. Most will get to their destination on time, and the rest just a few hours behind.

Parker Davis

Parker Davis

When he was just two months old, Parker took his first flight. From that point, he was destined to love aviation. His mom worked for Southwest Airlines and his dad has been a frequent flier on American Airlines for years, just as Parker is now. In 2015, Parker, inspired by aviation accounts on Instagram, decided to create an account of his own, and he hasn’t stopped spotting since. On top of that, Parker has been writing for his school paper since his freshman year. One day, he hopes to work either as an engineer at Boeing or in the front office at a major airline.
Parker Davis