Overbooking is a legal (arguably unscrupulous) industry practice where an airline will sell more seats on a flight than are available. On average 40,000 – 50,000 passengers a year are overbooked (bumped) from US domestic flights alone. This can be a very frustrating part of the customer experience, especially when you book a flight so far in advance expecting confirmed service.
For the airlines, overbooking is a game of probability. On average, the number of people that do not check-in for their scheduled flight is around 5-15 percent, depending on the route, season, type of travel, etc. Airlines have collected this data over the years to determine an average percentage of passenger no shows. For the airline, every empty seat is a missed opportunity to generate more revenue, so they overbook the flights based on these percentages. As you can imagine, this is not an exact science, and when every confirmed passenger shows up this can cause an overbooked flight.
When a flight is oversold and there are not enough volunteers, airlines set their own boarding priorities -- the order in which they will bump different categories of passengers in an oversell situation. Some airlines bump passengers with the lowest fares first, others the last passengers to check in. For passengers with the same ticket price, those that check in last are often the ones that are bumped. To decrease this likelihood, we recommend that you check in at least 2 hours prior to a domestic departure and at least 3 hours prior to an international flight. As our Seat FAQ outlines , seat selection for many airlines is now an ancillary chargeable service if you wish to assign seats prior to check-in. Despite the additional costs, having confirmed seat assignments on a flight does decrease the likelihood of getting bumped. If you wait for airport check-in, there is a greater chance the flight will be oversold. While specific seat assignments are not guaranteed, having seats assigned early does increase one’s chances to avoid an oversell situation.
Every airline has different rules in regards to overbooking and compensation. In terms of a possible scenario, the first thing that’s likely to happen with an overbooked flight is the gate attendant will ask people to volunteer to take another flight, and offer a travel voucher (often $200 and up) to sweeten the deal. Take note, by accepting this voucher, you essentially waive any possibility of further compensation from the airline. Alternatively, if you end up being denied boarding and do not accept a voucher, the airline may compensate you for the loss. It’s recommended that you reach out to the airline as soon as possible to file a claim, and you can often get the process started by talking to a gate agent while you wait.
We understand getting bumped from a flight a difficult and frustrating experience, especially if you are confirmed on a tour with pre-scheduled activities. At the airport, it’s best to speak to a gate or customer service representative about alternative departure options and what they can protect you on. If we can assist with this process during normal business hours, or help with connecting flights that would be affected by the delay, please reach out to us at 1-800-655-4053. Outside of normal business hours, please contact the agent responsible for your tour.
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