No Plan B For Bumped Fliers

The river of news concerning the awful summer travel season ahead continues to flow with a piece in today’s New York Times. According to the NYT, there’s no backup plan for crowded summer flights…and travelers who find themselves bumped could wait days for another flight.

A look behind the scenes of US Airways at the widespread practice of airline overbooking shows the industry’s struggle to fill every possible seat, including those left empty by the millions of passengers who buy a ticket but then do not show up.

The effort at times pits a group of young math whizzes at the airline against battle-tested gate agents, who are often skeptical of the complex computer models used to predict no-shows and to overbook flights.

Some agents even take matters into their own hands, creating phantom reservations — Mickey Mouse is a favorite passenger name, for example — to keep the math nerds at headquarters from overbooking a flight.

“It’s a little bit of black art,” said Wallace Beall, senior director for revenue analysis who oversees overbooking at US Airways.

Even though they are far from the only airline that does this, it kinda puts you off of US Airways, doesn’t it? —MEGHANN MARCO

Bumped Fliers and No Plan B
[NYT] (Thanks, Molly!)


Edit Your Comment

  1. dbeahn says:

    You’d think it would be illegal to sell the same seat twice, unless they were required to refund the no-shows. And last time I dealt with the airlines, it was made very clear if I no show they keep my money, period…

  2. xkaluv says:

    HUGE TIP! If you find yourself bumped and they are not willing to book another flight on another carrier do this. Get on the phone and call your travel agent or the other carrier. Tell them that you would like to book a flight and get your alternative booked!

    Then, ask the airline who booked you to print an ACTUAL TICKET. The airlines have a policy where your actual ticket can be traded as cash with another airline carrier.

    Presto! You can change carriers just like that. I found out this trick by accident during a travel nightmare, my company travel agent saved me with this trick.

  3. Lewis says:

    @dbeahn: Airlines sell transportation, not seats. They are bound by very specific requirements vis-a-vis involuntary boarding denials (bumps).

    IME, it’s actually quite rare that someone will be IDB’d – usually on oversold flights, the “pro” travelers line up at the gate to volunteer to be bumped – there are usually pretty compelling incentives (though not as compelling as in the past) for those who volunteer and are indeed bumped.

  4. bnet41 says:

    You know, this is why I travel on jetBlue a lot. They don’t do this overbooking, stuff and it scares me about the ones that do. I think it should be law that if a airline bumps you they are required to get you out on the next flight to that destination no matter of class, carrier, or expense. You could easily end up missing a vacation with this overbooking stuff.

  5. Lewis says:

    @xkaluv: Careful – this is not the case with all carriers. Many of the newer carriers, for instance, do not necessarily honor other carriers’ paper tickets.

  6. Brendoon says:

    I am abit confused by the overbooking scenarios.

    I mean if they have 100 seats on a flight and only 50 show up, who cares? I can’t imagine that are handing out refunds to everyone, so it would seem that they are doing half the work and making all the money.

    If I buy a ticket to a baseball game and I don’t make it to the game, the team isn’t giving me a refund nor are they selling my seat to 3 other people hoping 2 of us won’t show up. Why do airlines do this differently?

  7. Lewis says:

    @Brendoon: It’s all about yield management. If they know that they do a flight with 300 seats and only 50 tix are sold on a regular basis, odds are that flight is going to be taken off of the schedule since their cost per seat mile is going to be high compared to revenue.

    Similarly, if they know that the 2:00 from New York to Chicago always (statistically) has 10 more seats sold than people who show up for them, they figure they can squeeze some additional reveneue per seat mile in by overselling by 10 to compensate for the 10 that usually don’t show.

    When those numbers overlap, you have an overbook situation which you need to resolve by either asking for volunteers, or bumping people involuntarily.

    Some hotels often do the same thing BTW, and instead of being called “bumping” it’s called “walking.” Same revenue-optimization principle.

    Airline seats, like hotel rooms, are perishable inventory.

  8. Lewis says:

    @Brendoon: As for the baseball analogy, when you buy a ticket to a baseball game, you are buying a license to a specific SEAT for a specific game for a specific duration (unless you are buying bleachers or some other open-seating type thing.)

    With airlines you are buying transportation, and with hotels you are buying lodging – not a specific seat and not a specific room.

  9. TPIRman says:

    Just hope that the schmuck who took your seat ends up next to someone with extreme drug-resistant TB.

  10. zentec says:

    The thing that bothers me is that the customers who adhere to the rules and show-up have to be the ones who pay the price in overbooking. I’ve voluntarily left a flight on numerous occasions when traveling for business, but if my ticket is non-refundable and I get involuntarily bumped, I’d be seriously annoyed.

    The fair solution is that no ticket is 100% refundable. The low-fare vacation traveler has no recourse if they’re a no-show, they just gave away their money. The business traveler pays full-fare and has the option of being a no-show with no penalties if the seat can be resold. If it can’t, they just lost 30, 40 or 50 percent of their ticket.

    The flying public needs to choose between cheap travel fares or the convenience of having the airlines fly around their schedules.

  11. FatLynn says:

    Remember, folks, consumers have voted with their wallets time and time again to let airlines do stuff like this. If an airline instituted a policy not to overbook, but increased their fares 30% to cover the lost revenue, nobody would fly them. The fact is that the vast majority of travelers (and yes, that includes business travelers) book the cheapest flights every time.

  12. enm4r says:

    @FatLynn: If the airline business model relies on overbooking to stay afloat, something is wrong with their model. If there are 100 seats per plane, they should, when all is said and done, profit off selling those 100 seats. They can arrange that model however they want, overbook but give refunds, don’t give refunds but don’t overbook etc.

    Also, involuntary bumping is becoming more common. I think all of my last 3-4 flights have had it go down to the wire asking for volunteers, and so I assume there was involuntary bumping if they couldn’t get the few volunteers they needed in the 30 minutes prior to the flight. Also, a friend traveling last week from said that they were looking for 20 volunteers on a 747! 20! Overbooking a flight by 5% is ridiculous and inexcusable.

  13. JustAGuy2 says:

    @enm4r: They do give refunds if they overbook. If you’re an IDB (involuntarily denied boarding), you have the option of (a) getting your money back or (b) getting compensation and alternative travel arrangements.

  14. FatLynn says:

    @enm4r: There is nothing wrong with the business model as long as people continue to patronize them. If you don’t want to be bumped, pay the premium fare that guarantees you won’t be. Simple, isn’t it?

  15. bdgbill says:

    I just flew US Airways last weekend. It was against my better judgement but they were $300.00 cheaper than Delta. In return for my trust they lost my luggage AGAIN.

    I was speaking to another passenger as we were waiting to board. They had just announced that they would not be taking any stand-by customers because the flight was completely full. The other passenger thought that was strange because his colleauge had a non refundable ticket but was a no show.

    The penalty for bumping a passenger that has a confirmed seat due to overbooking should be very, very painful to the airline. Something like 300% of the cost of the original ticket.

  16. huadpe says:

    @Brendoon: The reason isn’t for casual/vacation travelers. The airlines hate when people with refundable tickets no-show. These tend to be business-class seats. Paying $100 more for the fully refundable ticket is silly for most people because they plan the trip long in advance and have the time well set aside. Business travelers tend to buy in bulk, and on short notice…they need to have maximum flexibility for the myriad schedules of mid-level managers and executives going to meetings/plant inspections.

    The reason that it matters is that if I no-show for a $2000 refundable business class ticket, the airline just lost $2000 of opportunity cost, which is equivalent to maybe 3 or 4 cattle herd seats. Also, corporate buyers tend to have in-house travel agencies, who know better than to buy unrefundable tickets. Airlines could do “no refunds, no overbooks” but they’d lose their best paying customers.

  17. formergr says:

    If you don’t want to be bumped involuntarily, check-in online at the earliest possible time (usually 24 hours) before your flight. If that’s not possible, get to the airport and check-in within the window recommended by your airline (usually 2 hours domestically). If you do all those things, you have an extremely low risk of being bumped.

    It’s the people who showed up/checked in only an hour before the flight (or less controllable were delayed by a connecting flight and weren’t able to check in for the connection in advance) who will be at the top of the list to be involuntarily bumped.

  18. skrom says:

    This wouldnt be nearly as much of a problem either if they wouldnt charge more for a one way flight than round trip. Most people that need to fly one way just buy a round trip ticket and never use the return ticket so that is one of the reasons a LOT of people dont show up for a flight. Why do they charge more for one way?

  19. IRSistherootofallevil says:

    If you sell 102 tickets on a particular flight and you only have 100 seats on the plane for that flight, that IS fraud. When you book a flight, it’s NOT up to the airline what flight they put you on. They MUST put you on the flight that you booked. You signed a contract with the airline saying they will get you from point A to point B on a 737 and it will depart at time A and arrive at time B on flight ABCD. If there is so much as a delay, they are obligated to give you your money back and the contract is null and void.

    Yes, you don’t buy the rights to a certain SEAT on flight ABCD, but you DO buy the right to be on flight ABCD. And most of the time, there IS a price difference between flight ABCD and flight ACBD.

  20. shoegazer says:

    @IRSistherootofallevil: You wish. Implicit in the price discount of a nonendorsable / nonrefundable ticket is that you are relinquishing the right to get your money back if you are bumped. If you don’t like it, pay full fare business.

  21. JustAGuy2 says:

    You really should read the contract of carriage. You’ll discover that your statement is almost entirely untrue. If you are involuntarily bumped, however, you do have the right to get your $ back (although they won’t then transport you).

    If you don’t like this situation, you’re welcome to try to negotiate a deal with the airline that gives you a rebate if the flight is late – there might be a wee bit of a premium for that sort of guarantee, however.

  22. FatLynn says:

    @IRSistherootofallevil: Sorry, but not fraud. The contract of carriage is available for your review at any time. You buy a ticket, you enter that contract. QED.