Offloaded airline passengers: is overbooking the new normal?

Plane talk: When carried out properly, selling more tickets than there are seats on the plane benefits everyone

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Wednesday 12 July 2023 08:20 BST
<p>Boarding soon? Passengers at Stockholm Arlanda airport</p>

Boarding soon? Passengers at Stockholm Arlanda airport

“I went to Italy last week,” writes Angela C. “The flight seemed to have been overbooked on both journeys. Outbound, six people were taken off the flight. Coming back, it seemed to be about 20 were not allowed to travel. Is this the new normal?”

Even during a week in which easyJet asked 19 volunteers to leave an overweight aircraft in Lanzarote, that doesn’t sound very normal. Yet selling more tickets than there are seats on board the plane is not malpractice. When overbooking is practised properly, everyone benefits. Almost every airline does it. One notable exception is Ryanair – and I wish Europe’s biggest budget airline did.

Here’s why I’m such a fan of overbooking (when carried out with respect and generosity). Typically a proportion of passengers won’t reach the airport on time or will simply “no-show”. For an average flight, easyJet puts the figure at 5 per cent.

The potential benefit for an airline is clear: selling an extra dozen tickets on top of the 235 seats available on an Airbus 321 represents pure profit – assuming the five per cent prediction proves correct.

The practice also benefits the passenger: someone who is desperate to travel can buy a ticket on a flight that is technically sold out. And overbooking allows flights to fly with more seats occupied, a small mitigation for the environmental harm caused by aviation.

But what happens when the carrier overestimates the no-show rate, and more travellers with confirmed reservations turn up than there are seats on the plane? Awkward. But passengers should never be offloaded against their will. Some travellers need to reach their destination at all costs, but many other passengers will be persuadable to give up their seats if the enticement is right.

A responsible airline must throw money at the problem: figuring out how much they must pay will persuade the requisite number of passengers to surrender their right to fly on their booked departure and to take the next available flight.

Usually, the enticement will simply be a sum of money, with a member of ground staff saying something like: “We will pay £300 for five volunteers to wait for a later plane”. If an overnight stay is required, anyone offloaded the volunteers can expect a hotel as well as dinner and breakfast.

I trust the six who did not fly outbound with Angela were volunteers who accepted a good offer. Coming back, I would be surprised if any airline would overbook so enthusiastically, so I imagine another factor was at work – possibly “downgauging” the aircraft (deploying a smaller plane).

Another possible explanation would be a member of the cabin crew being incapacitated. Civil Aviation Authority rules require airlines to deploy one cabin crew member for every 50 passengers. If, on a 180-seat jet, one of the four cabin crew goes sick, the capacity of the plane is immediately capped at 150 – potentially requiring a significant number of people to be offloaded.

Whatever the cause, they should be shown the same generosity and courtesy.

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