Airlines overbook flights more often than you think

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LAST weekend, United Airlines made headlines after security officers forcibly removed a passenger from an overbooked flight.

Video footage revealed the passenger – identified as 69-year-old David Dao – was yanked from his seat and dragged through the plane.

The incident – which left Dao bloodied and visibly traumatized – brought to light issues of passenger rights on overbooked flights, and why flights overbook in the first place.

Overbooking is a practice where businesses sell or book more than their full capacity. Airlines commonly sell to more passengers than their planes can seat to compensate for no-shows.

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For an airline, the idea of an empty seat is akin to that of a bakery ending up with stale pastry at the end of a service day – useless.

Airline Weekly managing partner Seth Kaplan told The New York Times, “To an airline, an empty seat is basically the same thing as stale bread. It’s something they can never sell again.”

Overbooking is usually allowed on economy seat categories, but less commonly for business or first class seats.

However, for airlines, overbooking is not as simple as allocating a standard number of seats on each flight.

Travel + Leisure reported the process involves a whole lot of math.

“Airlines aren’t just examining the likelihood of passengers to show up for their flight, complex algorithms factor in traffic, weather, connecting flights, and time of day,” the publication said.

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Airlines have also figured out how to oversell without losing money if passengers have to be bumped. This means revenue through ticket sales often outweigh the value of compensation airlines put out when re-booking passengers.

It’s proven to be a delicate balance for airlines to maximize revenues and save on operational costs. If too few seats are sold, they lose out; if too many are sold, the airlines pay penalties and face the headache of re-booking passengers.

Through years of statistical data, airlines have become adept at knowing who does and doesn’t show up for certain flights. On particular routes, the probability of passengers who show up is carefully calculated before the number of extra tickets to sell is decided.

In the case that a passenger is bumped, airlines are required to offer compensation, refunds or rewards in the form of gift or travel vouchers, and/or cash.

In the instance of the United incident last weekend, passengers were offered up to US$1,000 to leave the plane, according to an internal email circulated by CEO Oscar Munoz.

As passenger rights vary by region and airline, it’s best for passengers to find out what they’re entitled to should the situation arise.

Words by Surekha Ragavan.