The practice of overbooking flights has had its share of bad press recently, from the outrageous scrum on the United Airlines flight, to Jo Wood's Tweeted fury at being asked to leave a flight. However, before we join the flood of people decrying the practice, it's worth bearing in mind that we're benefiting from it too.
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In addition to calls to boycott United Airlines, there has been an outcry against overbooking. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie wrote to President Trump to try to persuade him to ban the practice, and a Change.org survey calling for a ban has been signed by more than 70,000 supporters.
Overbooking has been described by the press as a money-grab by greedy airlines, making passengers risk missing a flight and destroying their holiday, so that the airlines can squeeze even more money out of them. However, it's worth bearing in mind that we benefit from overbooking too.
Why overbooking is useful
1. If airlines didn't overbook, then those people who snap up the last few tickets would not have been able to buy them. Often these are passengers who have the least flexibility, which is why they have not been able to buy tickets in advance, so without overbooking, they wouldn't be able to fly.
2. Because they overbook, we are able to get better deals on seats. The way that deals work is that the first tranche of seats are offered at a low cost. Once they are sold, the price continues to go up as more and more of the seats are sold. As the departure date nears, if they still have plenty of seats to sell, the price falls again, and right before departure, they may fall significantly in order to sell all the seats they intend to. Without overbooking, these last-minute cut-price tickets would be much thinner on the ground - as would the early bird bargains.
3. In the vast majority of cases we reap the benefits of overbooking at no cost to ourselves. Most airlines are pretty accurate in determining how many people will miss each flight - and fewer than 0.01% of passengers are forced to miss a flight because it has been overbooked. As time goes on, the models and technology used to predict who will miss flights get more sophisticated, and fewer people end up being denied boarding. It means we get the savings associated with overbooking at no cost to ourselves.
4. Savvy travellers can even make money from overbooking - as long as they are flexible enough. Before anyone is removed from a flight, the airline will ask for volunteers, and will gradually increase the compensation on offer in order to persuade people to give up their seats. Earlier this week, a family flying from New York to Florida made almost £9,000 in profit after being bumped from three flights.
They initially received £1,075 each in gift cards for giving up their seats on their first flight and agreeing to travel the following day. Travel disruption at that point meant the airline was looking for more people to give up their seats, so they were paid £1,035 each for two tickets and £1,075 for the third. They then discovered they couldn't fly for another two days, so decided to cancel their trip. They were awarded £796 each in compensation, and had the cost of their initial tickets refunded.
How to avoid being bumped
If you are keen to avoid being bumped from a flight, there are a few steps you can take to make it less likely.
1. Try to fly at a less popular time. Flights on Fridays in the school holidays are likely to be oversold and packed, so being bumped is more likely. A plane late at night on a Saturday off peak season is less likely to be full - so you are more likely to keep your seat.
2. Check in early. Some airlines will bump the last people to check in if they don't get enough volunteers to give up their seats. If you can book online, it's worth doing as early as possible.
3. Join the loyalty scheme. Some airlines will favour frequent fliers, so at the very least join the frequent flier programme. Sometimes membership alone will be enough to protect you from being bumped.
4. Pay more for your ticket. This isn't terribly practical if you're a deal hunter, but generally, most airlines will avoid bumping those who paid the most for their seats.
5. Check in some luggage. It's far easier for airlines to remove passengers with no luggage in the hold, so if you get as far as the plane, having luggage on board should help you keep your seat,
6. Talk to the airline. Many will take individual circumstances into account so if, for example, you are trying to get to a wedding or a funeral, let them know and they may favour you when it comes to deciding who to deny boarding to.