Why do airlines overbook flights?

Passengers in a plane seen from behind above seats

Hundreds of flights are deliberately overbooked every year, resulting around 50,000 airline passengers being bumped off British flights, according to the aviation watchdog.

See also: Ryanair tells passenger on overbooked flight: Get off or face arrest

See also: Flying myths: True or false?

Paying customers can be forced to abandon a pre-booked journey under the practice, which aims to slash costs and promote greener travel.

Global outrage was provoked when footage surfaced of a doctor being violently manhandled off an overbooked US flight, leaving him bloodied.

Data from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) showed an average of 0.02% of passengers travelling to or from the UK experienced so-called denied boarding in 2015, equivalent to more than 50,000 people.

The CAA said in a report: "The main reasons airlines denied boarding were due to overbooking or having to bring in a smaller aircraft than planned to operate a flight."

Many airlines operating at British airports overbook to mitigate the losses made when passengers cancel or fail to show up for their seats.

Overbooking is also said to spell cheaper fares for travellers and less fuel waste from planes, according to an expert.

When too many passengers show up, airline staff will ask, conventionally before boarding, if there are any willing to surrender their seat in exchange for a so-called "bump" offer.

Such incentives, which are often increased until there are enough volunteers, can include cash, a night in a hotel or an upgraded replacement flight, travel writer Simon Calder said.

See also: How to get a free flight upgrade

He told the Press Association: "Overbooking is a benign practice in general. When it is done properly, it is a win-win for everybody involved.

"The airlines make more money so they say they can keep fares down, the environment is better off because planes are flying fuller, passengers that desperately need to travel can book a seat on a flight even though it's technically sold out and people like me who are happy to be flexible and to be paid money not to get on a flight are happy because we make more money on the deal than we paid on the flight in the first place."

If volunteers do not materialise, however, customers face being randomly selected to leave the flight.

The male doctor filmed being dragged from the United Airlines plane from Chicago to Louisville had reportedly refused to leave after saying he needed to return to treat patients.

Mr Calder said the physical response the man experienced was rare.

He said: "Generally, the passenger can say I'm going to a wedding, I'm going to a funeral, I'm a doctor or a surgeon I've got to operate people in the morning and then a less time-pressed person will be forced off instead.

"I hope this simply trains the airlines to be much more focused on how to do it properly, rather than dragging people kicking and screaming from planes, which is never a good look."

Under EU regulations, airlines are required to pay immediate compensation if a person is forced off a flight.

According to consumer group Which?, although passengers are not guaranteed bump offers, they are entitled to the same assistance and compensation as if their flight was cancelled.

For long-haul flights, this is set at £512 (600 Euros).

Mid-air meltdowns
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Mid-air meltdowns

In 2010, a flight from Omsk to Vladivostok was grounded after one of the passengers started running around the plane naked. "The young man suddenly jumped off his seat, quickly took all his clothes off, and started shouting and darting around the cabin,” Siberian transport police representatives said. The man was taken to a clinic upon landing.

In May 2011, terrified passengers on board an Easyjet plane had to overpower a British man who twice tried to open a cabin door mid-flight at 35,000ft between Krakow, Poland and Edinburgh. Witnesses said the the man lunged for the door handle but was quickly tackled by staff and fellow passengers as the aircraft's pilots were forced to land at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport. 

In August 2012, two passengers threw a wobbly because their airline didn't have any X-L sized pjyamas. Their Qantas flight was delayed as air stewards tried to pacify the pair but they were so indignant that they refused to fly and demanded to get off the plane. Quite right too. There's nothing worse than ill-fitting jim-jams at 30,000ft.

A Thomas Cook flight from Manchester to the Canary Islands had to do a U-turn after a passenger became so agressive that he had to be pinned down by five people. The 50-year-old man, who appeared to have been drinking, apparently got into a violent argument with an elderly passenger - believed to be his father - and began swinging wild punches, witnesses said. The plane landed and the unruly passenger was immediately arrested.

In January 2012, a Delta Airlines flight from Atlanta to Costa Rica had to be diverted because a couple from Germany reportedly refused to sit down unless they were given champagne. The pair, who were seated in first class, denied the incident, but the Delta Airlines captain took the precaution of making a diversion to Florida, where they were removed from the flight.

Even pilots have their moments, as we discovered from the JetBlue pilot who suffered a mid-air meltdown in March 2012 while in charge of a flight between New York and Las Vegas. Three hours into their flight, passengers were terrified when they heard him banging doors and running around the aircraft yelling about terrorism, and screaming: 'We're all going down!". The pilot had to be wrestled to the floor by passengers and locked out of the cockpit, and an off-duty pilot who was on board helped the plane make an emergency landing. The Jetblue pilot was later found not guilty of interfering with a flight crew for reasons of insanity.

Back in March 2012, one airline stewardess appeared to completely lose the plot when she started screaming about 9-11 and how the plane was going to crash. American Airlines flight 2332 from Dallas was taxiing along the runway when the attendant suddenly started screaming hysterically. Terrified passengers had to pin her down and the plane returned to base, where police arrested her, still kicking and screaming.

In July 2012, a passenger on an Alaska Airlines flight faced legal charges after he exploded into an expletive-ridden tirade against a woman in front of him - because she wouldn't turn off her reading light. The 50-year-old man, who was on a flight from Honolulu to Bellingham International Airport in Washington, threatened to keep kicking the back of her chair is she didn't turn off the light.

In August 2011, passengers travelling to London from Moscow on a bmi flight got more than they bargained for when a drunk female passenger started performing erotic dances in the aisles. The Airbus had to return to Domodedovo half an hour after take off when the woman started "harrassing" passengers. The woman was subsequently removed from the flight and taken to hospital for medical tests. The airline said it had considered fining her for the delay...

A toddler meltdown led to an entire family being kicked off a flight from Boston to the Caribbean in March 2012. Collette Vieau's two-year old daughter Natalie started crying and refused to sit in her seat. Although the family eventually managed to strap her in, the JetBlue pilot decided it was unsafe to fly with her on board and the family had to disembark. As there were no more flights that evening, the family had to pay $2,000 for hotel accommodation and to rebook their flights...


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