It is very common for passengers to not show up for their flight reservations. When passengers do not show up and seats go empty the airline has lost potential revenue. In order to generate more revenue and keep their aircrafts full of passengers, they will sometimes overbook flights. An overbooked flight has more reservations than available seats. It’s a gamble by the airline, and when everyone shows up someone is going to be left behind. Each airline has a process for dealing with oversales, and they will inform passengers of the overbooking at the gate and sometimes at check in. You may find yourself on an overbooked flight at some point. Here are some things you should know about them:
1. No Seat? No Problem
If you check in for your flight and you are not immediately assigned a seat then do not worry. You booked a seat, and are guaranteed one, except in rare situations where you may be bumped from the flight. Airlines will often leave premium seats unassigned until the last minute in hopes of selling them. These seats generally are near the front of the plane, and offer more legroom. I have even encountered situations where a coach passenger received a complimentary first class seat because that was all that was left. If you don’t have e seat assigned then the flight is most likely not oversold, just check in at the gate and the agent will usually get you an assignment without issue.
If your flight sis oversold then the gate agent will make an announcement verifying the oversale and will begin looking for volunteers to take another flight. The airline will typically offer airline credit for future travel or entire round trip tickets depending on their policy. When the next available flight is not until the next day then the airline may also offer hotel accommodations and meals. If you have flexibility in your travel plans then volunteering your seat is a great way to get some funds for your next trip. The agent will typically make a low offer to start and gradually increase it if they are having trouble finding volunteers.
If you decide to volunteer then go to the agent and let them know you are willing to give up your seat. If the offer is not high enough for you, but you are still thinking of volunteering then let the agent know that you are willing to volunteer for a specific amount. If the offer is $200 and you would take $400 let them know, they may be willing to give you that right there. Remember, you are helping them out by volunteering. They do not want to involuntarily force someone off of the plane.
3. Be clear on the future plan
When you decide to volunteer make sure that you find out when you will be able to get to your destination. The agent should be able to tell you which flights they can book you on, and which airline if they decide to switch you to another carrier.
If you will be making a connection then you may want to ask about alternate options when a flight is oversold. The airline may have a nonstop flight that could get you in earlier, or a better connection option that may save time.
4. No volunteer?
If the departure time is nearing and there are still no volunteers the airline may have to pull someone involuntarily. There are only so many seats on the aircraft and every passenger needs one. If no one is willing to change flights then there will be an unhappy person losing their seat. When this occurs the airline is obligated to rebook the selected passenger(s) and pay them cash. This is a US law. Make sure that you are compensated if you are involuntarily taken off of your flight. The airline must issue you cash compensation of at least 200% of the one-way fare up to $1350. This helps put a silver lining on the situation; at least you’ll get some cash out of the deal.
5. Get what you can
Remember, in an oversale the customer helps the airline. If you volunteer your seat then make sure to ask for some extras in addition to the flight credit. See if you can get a better seat on your next flight, and ask for some meal vouchers so you can eat while you wait. The worst that could happen is the agent says no. At least you’ll have some free money to spend on the next flight you book.
6. Weight Problem
For varying reasons a flight may be weight restricted and limited to the number of passengers that it can carry. In these situations the airline will still solicit for volunteers for compensation, but in the event of no volunteers the compensation structure is different. If passengers are deboarded involuntarily then the airline is no longer obligated to offer cash compensation, and any compensation issued could be less than the amount offered to volunteers. When a flight is weight restricted it is typically due to weather a conditions requiring the aircraft to carry additional fuel. Essentially it becomes a safety issue. Instead of canceling the flight the airline decides to fly with less passengers. It is a best-case scenario for most of the passengers, except for an unlucky few. Each airline has its own policy on how to select passengers for deboarding.
In a scenario where the airline downsizes an aircraft to a smaller plane then the weight restriction involuntary deboard process is also applicable. In any scenario the airline is required to rebook the passenger on the next available flight. In either of these situations you may be in a tough position, and there is nothing you would be able to do.
If you find yourself on an oversold flight then hopefully you will be able to take advantage of the oversale offer. If you have carried all of your bags instead of checking them, and you have allowed some extra time to get to your destination, then you could end up with the airline paying for your next trip. Not bad for volunteering to sit around for a couple extra hours. If you need to get to your destination then just plan to board as normal. It is extremely unlikely that you will be selected in a case when there are no volunteers to take a different flight.