No one wants to get to the gate to find out their flight is overbooked and the crew is seeking volunteers to give up their seats. So why do airlines overbook their flights and create added stress and anxiety for their passengers? Here's why this process is in existence.
The short answer to this question is maximizing profits. Overbooking means the airline books more seats than are available because data projections show that a percentage of passengers won’t show up for the flight. If the seat is marked as sold and someone doesn’t show up, it represents lost revenue for the airline. To counter this risk, the airline will overbook seats to hopefully completely fill the flight before departure.
Fuel costs continue to rise in the airline industry. Without instituting the process of overbooking, many airlines would pass these costs along to the passengers. Instead, the airlines choose to play a statistics game to try and fill planes without charging more in fares.
Whether it’s due to an emergency, missed connection, schedule change, etc. there's almost always a small group of passengers who don’t make the flight. You don’t necessarily see that. Standby customers who don’t have assigned seats are often assigned those remaining seats. Where it becomes an issue is when there are too many passengers at the gate.
Difference Between Overbooking and Overselling
It’s important to understand the difference between overbooking and overselling. Overbooking means the airline accepted more reservations for seats than are available on the particular flight. Overselling is when more confirmed passengers show up for their flight than there are seats on the plane. The latter results in one or more confirmed passengers being left without seats.
Why Airlines Won’t Stop Overbooking Flights
Airlines are not likely to stop the practice of overbooking flights unless they can find a way to pass that potential missed revenue on to you, the passenger, through increased fares. If the practice of overbooking is eventually declared illegal, it’s a guarantee that ticket prices will rise.
How to Reduce the Risk of Losing Your Seat
The best way to avoid a potential situation with an overbooked or oversold flight is to fly with carriers who don’t overbook or claim not to intentionally oversell. Some of these carriers include Southwest Airlines and Ryanair. There are reports that WestJet and JetBlue don’t intentionally overbook flights as part of their operations either. There may be situations, however, where travelers from earlier flights need to be accommodated or equipment changes result in an oversold situation.
Another way to reduce your risk of getting bumped from your flight is to avoid major hubs, especially during peak business travel times or major holidays. According to Smarter Travel, the cheapest days to travel are Tuesday and Wednesday. The next cheapest days are Thursday and Saturday, which may come as a surprise. However, most travelers prefer to maximize their time away and come home on Sunday instead. For business travelers, the busiest and most expensive days are Monday and Friday.
Status Has Its Privileges
If you are concerned about having a ticket and being bumped, be sure to join a loyalty program and earn status if you can. Airlines are going to do what they can to keep from kicking off their frequent flyers, especially those who have elite status with the airline. It might even help you earn an upgrade rather than being bumped. When airlines have too many passengers checked in for economy, they do operational upgrades into higher class seats if available. Having elite status with an airline can help increase your chances of being one of those chosen for an upgrade. And, the higher your status, the better your chance of getting an operational upgrade.