Overbooked Airlines Cut Their Nosecone to Spite Their Face

In the face of growing competition and declining revenues, airlines are trimming back costs, like customer service.

Brad, a frequent traveler, and writer of the popular “American Airlines Blames the Victim” post a few weeks ago, sent us another cogent airline gripe. This time he’s got beef with the chaotic and viciously inefficient way in which they handle passengers for overbooked flights.

When I stepped forward to the counter and asked why they hadn
t asked for volunteers or offered incentives, I was told rudely “We don’t have time for that!

For, as he notes, “If you read the fine print on your ticket, you’ll find that the only legal obligation airlines have is to get you from point A to point B. When, how long it takes, and by what route are NOT guaranteed…” His story, and apocalyptic propeller bots, after the jump.


As a frequent traveler, I am sometimes booked on US Airways. As with all airlines in this day and age, they often overbook the flights. And, like many airlines now, they are not taking responsibility for that policy by offering substantial incentives to passengers to take a later flight.

Remember when airlines used to offer tickets and hotel rooms and raise the ante until they had enough takers? Well, what most travelers haven’t noticed is that many airlines now offer one set incentive (usually a round trip ticket) and if there are no passengers who step forward to take the offer, and if you are the unlucky passenger without a seat assignment, YOU get bumped.

Twice now I’ve been on overbooked flights with US Airways. The first time they didn’t even make the attempt to ask for volunteers. They just started boarding. When I stepped forward to the counter and asked why they hadn
t asked for volunteers or offered incentives, I was told rudely “We don’t have time for that!” Even though they and the passengers had been standing around the gate area doing nothing for the last hour. So, one of our traveling party was left behind. Then, because their computer system didn’t seem to be able to tell them if the plane was full or not, they found a couple of seats open by actually going on the plane and doing a manual count. Two of the eight or more passengers overbooked on the flight got to board. I was lucky enough to be one of them. But, one of my traveling group was not.

(Lesson: Tom, the guy in our group who got bumped, was going to just drop the whole incident and tolerate it like most of us do when we get bad service. I wouldn’t accept that. I wrote an e-mail about the incident to US Air and got a standard response letter. But, then I got our travel agent involved and he got Tom a round trip ticket for his trouble.)


The second US Air overbooking incident happened to me just a few weeks ago, I asked to speak to the supervisor on duty. When no passenger seemed to be willing to take the round trip ticket they offered (and wait in the airport for five hours on a Friday night), a US Airways employee suggested that I wander through the crowd and try to coerce another passenger to take the deal. Apparently, they didn
t have time to get on the mike again and ask for volunteers.

To add even more absurdity to the situation, the supervisor and gate agent who had been dealing with me for 30 minutes or more suddenly realized that they DID have two passengers who had offered to take the incentive an hour before, but that they had “forgotten to write it down.” (Another reminder that the only way to get good service sometimes is to be demanding. If I hadn’t, I’d have been stranded.)

I won’t bore you with the other ridiculous details of the story. There were many that reveal incompetence, indifference and rudeness on the part of the people handling both situations. And, I’ve vowed to never fly on that airline again if I can help it.

But, beware customers of ALL the airlines. They are all overbooking to fill up those planes (and avoid bankruptcy) and you may be the unlucky person who misses a meeting or a vacation because you didn’t realize you were sold a seat that they didn’t really have.

Plus, gone are the days when they feel obligated to offer perks to travelers with more flexible schedules so they can get you on that plane. That’s yet another bit of real service that’s been taken away without us noticing.

If you read the fine print on your ticket, you’ll find that the only legal obligation airlines have is to get you from point A to point B. When, how long it takes, and by what route are NOT guaranteed.

Good luck, travelers.


Previously: American Airlines Blames the Victim


Edit Your Comment

  1. Paul D says:

    Thank you Ronald Reagan.

  2. nweaver says:

    Why can’t more airlines be like southwest. Southwest overbooks with reckless abandon, but they are GOOD at asking for volunteers (It’s the “Southwest Airline ‘Who’s Not In A Hurry'” lottery).

  3. The Unicorn says:

    Indeed. My boyfriend & each got about $250 in ticket credits for volunteering to take a bump when we were visiting his family in Phoenix. We actually had wanted to leave the next day, but the prices were much higher, so we’d decided to leave the night before. So basically, we ended up leaving when we wanted to, with a bunch of free travel to boot (and no additional hotel charges, since we were staying in their guest room).

    Southwest’s policy is (or was) to give you a voucher for the full amount of your round-trip whenever you take a bump. We traveled off of those credits for close to a year.

    The only downside was that the tickets had to be purchased *at the airport* in order to use the vouchers, which was a royal pain. But their Rapid Rewards ticketing system has gotten a lot more streamlined since then (this was almost 3 years ago) so I wouldn’t be surprised if that had changed too. Also, you could reserve the tickets by phone, & they would hold them for 24 hours while you got to the airport, so at least you didn’t have to worry that the fare you wanted would have disappeared by the time you arrived at the ticket counter.

  4. And, if I’m not incorrect, I think that Southwest bases their overbooking policies on your boarding pass order, not on when you booked, which means that if you aren’t a dumbass and print your pass online the night before, it should be smooth sailing.


  5. Smoking Pope says:

    US Airways/America West is the worst airline around. I had a flight to Las Vegas get delayed 6 hours. I was told every hour on the hour that “the flight just left the ground in Las Vegas”. Considering that it’s a 1 hour flight to Phoenix, quite obviously this was a lie, but a lie they kept telling even when the logical objections were raised.

    Then I had 6.5 hours of delays on the way back. I could’ve driven there and back for a lot cheaper in the same amount of time.

    A year later, I had to fly to San Francisco and when I saw the flight was delayed, I went to ask why. “Sir, the flight has just left the ground in Las Vegas.” Grrr… 5 hour delay. I’m another person who won’t fly them unless I’m absolutely forced to.

  6. CTSLICK says:

    Southwest certainly has it problems but it does two important things to avoid issues like this. First, they spend time traing the customer service folks who are on the front line AND they reinforce that training often. Second, they manage expectations. Despite offering low budget service with little to no frills they maintain the lowest complaint rate in the industry.

  7. adamondi says:

    Yeah, Paul D. Because it is Ronald Reagan’s fault that airlines twenty years after his presidency are screwing over their customers. Holy crap. He has the powers to come back from the dead to force today’s airlines to go lax on their customer service.

  8. Paul D says:

    He has the powers to come back from the dead to force today’s airlines to go lax on their customer service.

    But his policies with regard to air-industry deregulation DID cause the chain reaction which we are still experiencing today with cash-strapped airlines cutting corners in all the wrong places.

    My family travelled all over the world during the 70’s and 80’s and I can tell you there was DEFINITELY a turning point during Reagan’s administration where the airlines were given cart blanche to say “up yours” to their customers any time they wanted.

    Besides…everything is Ronald Reagan’s fault. Everything. :)

  9. Ben Popken says:

    Jen writes:

    While Brad may be a frequent flier, he really should familiarize himself with the “contract of carriage,” which is something that all airlines have, though they’re sometimes unwilling to admit it at the gate. You know the saying about an educated consumer… Each airline has their own contract of carriage, which outlines the airline’s responsibilities and obligations to its passengers, as well as some of the rules under which it agrees to transport the customer “from point A to point B” as Brad puts it.

    US Air actually calls their contract of carriage by the name “Terms of Transportation.” You can find it here: http://www.usair.com/customers/travel_policies/terms/terms

    In the case that Brad is describing, the airline term for it is “Involuntarily Denied Boarding.” You can find US Air’s description of how it handles IDB cases here:

    As it’s spelled out, where they don’t have volunteers (because they haven’t asked for them, or because not enough have presented themselves), the T of T describes how they prioritize who gets bumped from the plane. Based on the priority described in the T of T, if members of Brad’s party got bumped, I’m assuming they either weren’t at the gate as the plane was boarding, and didn’t have status within US Air’s frequent flier program, and among the last people to check in to the flight.

    In instances where someone is Involuntarily Denied Boarding, US Air has more obligations than to simply get the person from Point A to Point B (as Brad incorrectly states). Again, if you read the T of T, you’ll see that they owe him either a free roundtrip coach ticket in the US, or (and I’m quoting here): Cash compensation in the amount of 200% of the sum of the values of the customer’s remaining flight coupons of the ticket to the customer’s next stopover, or if none, to his/her destination, but not more than $400.00. However, the compensation shall be 50% of the amount described above, but not more than $200.00, if US Airways arranges for comparable air transportation, or for other transportation acceptable to the customer, scheduled to arrive not later than two hours after the planned arrival, at the airport of the customer’s next stopover, or at the airport of the customer’s destination of the flight on which the customer holds a confirmed reservation.

    The big lesson here:
    Airline staff are overworked and underpaid because airlines are under tremendous pressures these days. Often even the staff isn’t familiar with their company’s own rules. In the first instance that Brad cites, it appears that his travel agent was familiar with the rules and got his friend the roundtrip ticket he was entitled to. But passengers should be familiar with the airline’s policies and procedures, and should make a fuss until they get what they’re entitled to. It doesn’t hurt to print out a copy of the airline’s contract of carriage, and keep it with you when you travel. But most of us who actually travel a lot don’t practice what we preach, and don’t carry it. However, we know to ask the supervisor to show us the specific language in the contract of carriage that pertains to IDB situations (or whatever else is relevant) when something doesn’t feel right.

    I really like Consumerist, but I wish you’d do a little more fact checking or research of your own before printing reader emails like Brad’s. The fact is, he sounds like a jerk who’s twice shown up at the last minute for a flight, demanded a seat and has gotten shafted because he hasn’t made it to the gate on time. No wonder the gate agents haven’t given him a little more consideration…you’d think he’d learn his lesson by now, but unfortunately he hasn’t. Plus, he makes some inaccurate statements (like saying that the only thing airlines have to do is get you from point A to point B…obviously, there’s a little more than that). You’d do a better service to the rest of your readers if you’d teach them about things like the contract of carriage and their rights as fliers.

    FWIW, I’ve flown US Air once in the last 3 years. They aren’t my airline of choice, but I hate to see misinformation spread around.

  10. Ben Popken says:

    Brad (the letter’s author) writes:

    Interesting information, but for the record, in both cases I was there at
    least an hour-and-a-half before the flight took off and well before most of
    the other passengers on the flight. So, I was not a “jerk who showed up at
    the last minute demanding a seat.” The flight was oversold and the airline
    wasn’t taking responsibility for their policies.

    As far as the airline personnel being underpaid and overworked, I DO have
    sympathy for them. But, bad service is bad service. They need to familiarize
    themselves with their own company’s policies. And, if they hate their jobs
    that much, they need to find a new career not take it out on passengers.