When Flights Get Overbooked

Image Taken from Reader’s Digest.

We are beginning to get towards the busier part of the year for travel. While October is typically relatively quiet, when I worked in the aviation industry we would see non-stop traffic throughout November and December. Have you ever wondered what happens when a flight gets overbooked?

The Monitoring Game

Flight loads are constantly changing. There are always people who book last minute, people who are rebooked from missed flights, people who change their mind and decide not to travel, or maybe they are airline employees hoping to fly standby. Whatever the case may be the number of who is booked on the flight is never cause for worry to the gate agent assigned to your flight until the flight officially closes 1 hour before departure. 

When the computer officially closes the flight, it will process any upgrades that people have paid for or have requested and will show the actual number of people who are confirmed on the flight in every class of service. This is typically when anyone with airline status will hover near the gate agent’s computer to see if their upgrade has cleared.  Airlines typically do not worry about a flight truly being overbooked until this point in time. 

Unless a flight is delayed significantly or cancelled, airlines can usually count on a handful of seats becoming available even if the computer is showing it as oversold when the flight is still open. Gate agents will monitor the seats and make a note of who they may be able to upgrade to balance out the inventory. 

A True Oversell

Let’s say that all upgrades have been processed and all cabins of class are now filled and the computer is still showing there are more people than seats available. What happens next? Anyone that is flying standby will be the first people to be notified that they will not make it onto the flight. The seats in the back of the plane, usually for crew rest, are taken. 

The secondary gate agent will begin calling for bags to be gate checked through to the final destination as the primary gate agent runs reports showing what passengers have connecting flights, and on seats available on other flights to the same destination later that day in order to be fully prepared. The goal of all airlines is to avoid giving out too much compensation if possible and to rebook passengers on their airlines later that day. 

It may differ on domestic airline routes, but with my airline, we always tried to accommodation anyone that had a connecting flight first. Our first choice would be to call them up to the podium to see if we would see if we could reroute them through a different city. Sometimes a reroute would be able to get the passenger into their final destination earlier than the oversold flight. If the passenger had an international connection, we would look into our sister airlines and see if we might be able to offer our passengers a direct flight. 

Normally the passenger would accept being rerouted to a different airline or through another city, but not always. The third step would be to begin making an announcement that we were looking for volunteers to give up their seats for a later flight and some form of compensation such as an upgrade to a business class seat or monetary compensation.

Monetary Compensation

How do airlines tell what they can and cannot offer? This is a little bit of a grey area. Each operating carrier has different rules and guidelines for issuing compensation especially when it comes to money. More and more nowadays the norm is to offer points into people’s frequent flyer accounts or a voucher for a future flight. If a person was requesting monetary compensation we had two options at my airline. We would be able to send them a check in a few weeks or offer them cash if they asked for it. 

Compensation amounts depended on the cost of their ticket. At my airline, we had comments on every person’s ticketing record of the maximum we would be allowed to offer them if they were to give up their seat. Cash was significantly less than that of a check as cash was not readily available. The longer you wait doesn’t necessarily mean the amount will go up either.

What You Need to Know

If no volunteers come forward, the airline has the right to deny boarding to passengers. It is a great disservice to the passengers, but a flight cannot physically go out with more people than seats available. The computer will run another report of people who may not have any connections, are traveling alone and have the lowest paid ticket fare. The airline will always try to keep families together. 

It isn’t usually  the fault of the gate agents, but rather it is the fault of the computer if a flight gets oversold. Be patient and understanding. A little bit of kindness will go a long way! They are just as frustrated at the situation as you and do not want to be the ones to tell you that you won’t be able to fly. 

Volunteering to take a later flight will typically give you a better seat along with some type of points, future travel voucher or monetary compensation. The airline MUST provide you with a boarding compensation paper explaining the policies and procedures of what they call denied boarding. Make sure you get this paper so you know your rights. 

Always ensure you have your baggage claim tickets if you checked any bags! The airline wants your luggage to make it onto the flight you will actually be traveling on and needs those tag numbers in order to find your luggage. It can be a nightmare trying to find what container somebody’s bag has been loaded into and take a long time to sequence all the bags within that container. 

Final Thoughts

I hope this post gives you a little look into the aviation world and into the mindset of a gate agent. There are many tasks they are asked to perform and they typically do not get all of the respect they deserve. It’s their job to solve the problems on the ground before the plane takes off in order to make the work for the crew and pilots seemless. It’s their goal for you to never know about 98% of the issues that occur before you board the airplane. I’ll continue this series if you like it. Please let me know or post if you have any questions. I’d love to hear from you! Until next time, happy travels!