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Flight Overbooking: Is it time to stop?

It may seem logical that if you manage to buy a ticket for a sporting event or theatre, that you should expect be able to attend. That if you have bought a car or a garment and paid for it, you should expect delivery or be able to collect your goods. But what if on the day of the event, or collection, you were told that your tickets, or vehicle or coat had been sold to somebody else. Furthermore that this wasn’t an accident, but ‘company policy’. Most of us would be outraged and complain bitterly, maybe threaten to call the police or a lawyer. So why do we accept the practice of overbooking on airlines?

Most airlines sell more seats than they have on their aircraft, gambling that a number of passengers won’t show. Given the hazards that many passengers face – traffic, delayed connections, bad weather etc. plus those that change plans or just can’t be bothered, it’s not a massive gamble, more a calculated risk. Rarely do all passengers that are booked on a flight turn up. But do the airlines really have a right to sell their seats twice? Overbooking is common practice for the majority of airlines and is perfectly legal. As part of their business, airlines sell too many tickets with the assumption that there will be a certain percentage of “no shows”. They use statistics to determine exactly how many tickets to sell - too few and they’re wasting seats, sell too many and they face penalties such as the cost of other flights, hotel stays and annoyed customers.

The moral question is another matter. Brought sharply into focus by the dreadful spectacle of a United Airlines passenger being dragged kicking and screaming from his seat on an overbooked flight that shocked many people around the world, overbooking became a hot topic in the press and on social media. There was public outcry - not just expressions of sympathy for the elderly doctor who required hospitalisation after being evicted, but also condemnation of the greed of United and most other airlines selling more seats than are available. However air travel is such a price conscious business –While overbooking is frustrating, especially if you are a flyer who has been affected by it, the practice contributes to cheaper flights because it is a way for airlines to help guarantee that planes will be filled to capacity. Aviation experts note that if overbooking were made illegal, ticket prices would almost undoubtedly rise.

What is the scale of the problem? In the United States, the number of people denied boarding was 1.07m in 1999 but declined to 552,000 in 2015, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Although that sounds like a lot of people, the 2015 level represented only 0.09 per cent of trips taken by passengers. So statistically you are likely to encounter this issue less than once in every hundred flights you take, and even then what you are offered in compensation can more than make up for the inconvenience.

We never want to witness another scene like United Airlines #3411, but for as long as this business remains ruthlessly competitive, the best we can hope for is that if we are victims of overbooking that the situation is dealt with appropriate sensitivity and not by thugs in police uniforms.

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