Travel News

Overbooking: finally, an airline gets smart

Simon Calder’s Travel

Overbooking is a sensible concept. Passengers “no show” for flights for which they have confirmed reservations for many reasons: illness, changes in plans, not allowing enough time to reach the airport …

Accordingly, selling more tickets than there are seats on the plane can be a very profitable sideline.

There are other beneficiaries besides the airline. Someone who needs to make a last-minute emergency dash can become the 181st ticket holder for that 180-seater jet, and can expect to get on board. And the environmental damage per passenger is slightly reduced when planes fly with more seats occupied.

But overbooking needs to be correctly managed when the airline guesses wrong and too many passengers show up expecting to take their seats. The correct response from the airline to such a situation is to recruit volunteers to travel on a later flight by raising the financial incentive until enough passengers are happy to walk away.

In my experience, US carriers are very good at handling such embarrassments. They will often discreetly enrol “just in case” volunteers ahead of the closure of the flight. The deal is this: if too many people show up, and you are called upon to offload, you will be showered with benefits such as cash or a free flight, plus a night in a hotel if it means an overnight stay.

When there are too many passengers, there will be cheerful offloadees – often including me. I am the first to volunteer for taking a later flight if a reasonable remedy is proposed: last time it was $600 (£472) for waiting an extra three hours at Salt Lake City airport, courtesy of Delta.

All too often in the UK, the opposite happens. While airline ground staff are legally required to ask for volunteers, on many occasions they just don’t bother. Instead, they typically offload the last people to check in – possibly singling out those who have not checked in baggage, to save having to extract cases from the hold.

At last, a Spanish budget airline appears to have come up with a solution designed to minimise the problem. Vueling is writing to some passengers with an offer to “change your flight and get a discount”.

Here’s how it works, according to reader Evan Davis. Ahead of a London Gatwick-Barcelona flight with Vueling, the airline sent an email reading: “Would you consider changing your flight and getting a discount of…

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