Airlines flaunt rules: Overbooking flights ought to benefit passengers as well


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Counter-intuitively, overbooking the seats on commercial flights is good practice for an airline and beneficial for passengers – so long as it is handled properly.

In a business as fraught with uncertainty as air travel, selling more tickets than there are seats available is rational. On a flight with 200 booked, typically 10 will be “no shows” – for reasons ranging from traffic congestion en route to the airport or a late-running connecting flight to the vagaries of ticketing that can make a return ticket cheaper than a one-way.

Double-booking seats is a good way to ensure planes fly as full as possible, which should be welcomed for reducing per-passenger impact on the environment while keeping fares low. It also as the unintended, but nevertheless useful, consequence of helping people with an urgent need to travel to find space on flights that are, theoretically at least, already full.

In the US, when an airline predictions of no-shows goes awry and there is a surplus to Seattle, the scenario is normally handled pleasantly and positively: gate staff just keep on raising the bidding until there are enough volunteers prepared to fly later. If the promise of $200 and a flight this evening doesn’t secure enough willing folk, then how about $300 or a guaranteed upgrade to first class?

The European Commission’s rules on passengers’ rights were sensibly designed to encourage this kind of good behaviour across Europe. The rules obliged carriers to seek volunteers before offloading anyone against their will, and force them to buy seats on a rival’s flights if necessary to get people where they need to be.

But the system is not working. The Independent has seen numerous examples where these rules are not followed – with passengers not only distressed about missing a business meeting, holiday or family event, but also misled about their entitlement. This is poor customer service, and bad business.

These practices give a bad name to a sensible and useful process that should have public support for minimising waste in the aviation industry.