Should American Airlines Have Flown Five Overbooked Passengers Across The Atlantic In An Empty Plane?

American Airlines managed to rebook all but five passengers after canceling one of its four daily flights from Chicago to London. The five still needed to get to London, so American rustled up an empty plane and invited everyone up to business class. Seems nice, but Friends of the Earth is outraged that American burned 22,000 gallons of fuel for five passengers. Great customer service or eco-scandal? Vote in our poll, after the jump.

American claims they had no alternative:

“With such a small passenger load we did consider whether we could cancel the flight and re-accommodate the five remaining passengers on other flights.

“However, this would have left a plane load of west-bound passengers stranded in London Heathrow who were due to fly back to the US on the same aircraft.

“We sought alternative flights for the west-bound passengers but heavy loads out of London that day meant that this was not possible.”

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Plane flies five passengers from US to London [Telegrah]
(Photo: Cubbie_n_Vegas)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Nick says:

    It seems like they needed to get a plane to London anyway–it wasn’t an unnecessary trip, those five people just got lucky.

  2. sir_eccles says:

    At least they weren’t stranded at the airport with nothing but a silly voucher for “Quality Inn”. My god, whenever a company name includes the word “quality” you know you’re in for a treat. Thanks US Airways and Quality Inn for a memorable stay in Charlotte! No I’m not still bitter!

  3. Shred says:

    of course “my kind of of customer service” is winning. why do i keep reading the reader imput when it just makes me angry and depressed?

  4. SaveMeJeebus says:

    I’m sure we would bitch regardless of the outcome.

  5. thirdbase says:

    @sir_eccles: way to turn this whole thing around and make it about you. Someday when your a big boy you can have your own article posted on Consumerist. Until then stay relevant to the OP.

  6. hals000 says:

    It is true that the plane needed to be moved to London. If they did not make this flight there would have been 275 passengers stranded in London that AA would have had to deal with. It happens all the time, usually with 0 pax.

  7. azntg says:

    Eco-scandal or not, I have to say, well done American! Probably one of the better pro-consumer decisions you have made to date.

    @hals000: I believe that. No one company can be that super-efficient. Besides, you gotta believe there can be things called mishaps too, for that matter.

  8. thetango says:

    Only business class?

    Why not first??????


    (Joking … just joking)

  9. AT203 says:

    So, the full story is that they need an aircraft in London to bring a full plane load back to the US. I can’t say I’m completely outraged here. The story is a little more nuanced than that.

  10. SpecialEd says:

    A big corporation goes the extra mile to provide exceptional service and Consumerist still gets it’s panties in a wad. If they had left five people stranded they would be catching all kinds of hell from you guys.

  11. zentec says:

    I was unable to find the link on the Friends of the Earth web site that says their site is solar powered. Maybe they need to clean-up their own footprint before worrying about American Airlines?

  12. gtbernstein says:

    Why is this even a vote. This website is all about maintaining good customer service. In an industry known for its poor customer service, American Airlines seemed to shine through in this instance. I say, good for them.

  13. Carencey says:

    went with option 3. not an airlines expert, but if they had to get a plane to London to accommodate a full return flight, wouldn’t that have resulted in a “repositioning” flight (at least that’s what cruise lines call it) with no passengers that no one would have heard about? it might not have been transatlantic, but still.
    I am also wondering though, why they canceled the flight in the first place, if they were just going to fly the plane anyway. it seems like they inconvenienced the rest of the passengers for nothing? That’s not really the point of the entry, I was just wondering how much story we weren’t getting here.

  14. ClankBoomSteam says:

    Howzabout the airlines just go ahead and learn simple math?

    If they have a given number of seats and a given number of passengers, those numbers should be equal on a given plane unless the number of SEATS is greater than the number of passengers.

    If companies like American could figure things like this out on their own, we wouldn’t have to ask questions like this about their eco-responsibility.

  15. JackAshley says:

    Has anyone considered that since a flight was canceled which was going to waste the fuel anyways (perhaps even more, due to weight of full passengers) then this really is moot?

    It’s like saying “we canceled one flight and created another” and then they get blamed for the wasted fuel on the created flight, and no credit for the saved fuel on the canceled flight. Friends of the Earth = Nonsensical.

  16. lascauxcaveman says:

    There’s no story here. They needed a plane in London. Shooting themselves in the foot if they don’t get it there, with potentially hundreds of folks they’d have to re-book on other flights at huge expense. They hate to have to send an empty plane for a trans-atlantic route, but sometimes it must be done.

    It’s not about customer service, though it’s nice for them that they can put that happy face on it.

  17. Crazytree says:

    unnecessary story.

  18. nequam says:

    There’s a difference for the crew between flying an empty plane to London and flying a plane with passengers (even if only 5). That was a nice thing for them to do.

    I think the article is really more about Friends of the Earth, and they’re knee jerk reaction, than anything else.

  19. KJones says:

    Barring the issue of the plane being needed in London…

    Is American so afraid of their competition that they couldn’t rebook the five passengers on another company’s plane? It would have saved money and fuel, plus shown the five that American was concerned about getting them to their destination, not the money.

  20. stinerman says:

    Great customer service or eco-scandal?

    Why can’t it be both?

  21. Maulleigh says:

    American Airlines just can’t win, can it? The PR woman is going to quit. There’s no way to spin this!

  22. badgeman46 says:

    I thought treehugging eco-nazis were for mass-transit?
    The plane needs to get to london, plus they actually saved fuel, since the plane carried less fuel than a full load would have due to the weight (marginal cost of fuel in aerodynamics). Who knows how much gas they would have wasted if they didnt fly the plane and countless other jets were idling around waiting for gate space from the domino effect of cancelling it. Trehuggers need to be quiet. Plenty of times I have taken the train or a bus and there were only a couple people on it, it doesn’t mean they should go cancelling the train or the bus, that defeats the purpose.

  23. ChuckECheese says:

    @Crazytree: Unnecessary internets. Bring back calculators, books and beer in the can.

  24. bravo369 says:

    Friends of the Earth can kis my you know what. It wasn’t the passengers fault that the airline overbooked the flight. I wouldn’t care if I was the only one on the flight, I paid for my ticket and I have places to be so it’s up to American to get me there one way or another.

  25. mantari says:

    They’re protesting a simple PLANE FLIGHT?! Wow. Just imagine the horror when we send the SPACE SHUTTLE up into SPACE!

  26. ywgflyer says:

    Sounds like they would need to repo the plane to LGW to get the westbound leg going anyways…story seems to just be focusing on the fact that they put some REVENUE passengers on that repo leg.

    Lots of airlines do this all the time. Off the top of my head, Lufthansa used to fly Dubai-Abu Dhabi with (at one time) a 747 (I think they still do it, too, but with something smaller…A330?) … you don’t see people jumping on them for flying something like that on a 80mi leg, now, do you? Same reason, really – repositioning.

    Happens all the time, folks. I seriously doubt that American (or anyone else, for that matter) would set up a transatlantic flight in a widebody aircraft and burn north of 100,000lbs of fuel (at today’s prices, mind you) to make five people happy.

  27. raleel says:

    Honestly, i’m kind of amazed they couldn’t find them a lear jet or something out of there.

  28. NewPerfection says:

    You get mad if they send one full plane and one mostly empty one, but not if they send two half-full ones? Doesn’t that equate to the same thing? Come on, this whole thing is just stupid. I applaud American for what they did.

  29. Blackneto says:

    I doubt that plane went over totally empty anyway.
    I’m sure there was some freight or something in the hold.

  30. @raleel: honestly, I’m kind of amazed how people are ignorant when it comes to actually reading beyond the headline. Oh sure, they could have also used the same learjet to fly a whole jumbo jet full of people back from London as well, eh?

  31. PinkBox says:

    I got stranded recently thanks to a cancelled flight, so I’m going to have to side with the airline on this one. I would have appreciated the airline I was with doing the same for me.

    It was a pain in the ass trying to find accomodations to make up for the “act of god” that got my flight cancelled.

  32. Zyada says:

    My mother worked for American Airlines and there are a number of flights daily that are for the sole purpose of moving planes to the airport they need to be for their first flight in the morning. These were great for the flight privileges we got because they were always empty. Who would choose to fly from San Francisco to DFW at three in the morning?

  33. lemur says:

    @discounteggroll: I’ve stopped being amazed a long time ago.

  34. Jim C. says:

    The so-called “Friends of the Earth” sent a correspondent to the Bali climate conference. I couldn’t anything decrying how much carbon was released by all the planes flying in, including so many private planes that there wasn’t enough space to park them all.

  35. danseuse322 says:

    It’s the first time in a long time I have heard of an airline actually acting like it gave a rip about customers. Seriously.

  36. Neurotic1 says:

    Stories like this is what makes people think that environmentalists are all ignorant morons.

    Anyway, airlines do this all the time to allocate aircraft to various routes that might not have a plane for a variety of reasons; i.e. maintenance problem, schedule change. They’re called “ferry” flights. They’re usually empty except for the flight crew (2 pilots).

  37. pip41 says:

    Nothing wrong with AA’s move here since empty planes get moved around all the time. Might as well put a few passengers on them if you can. What I am not understanding about this story, however, is that if they already decided to take the plane to London, why was the original flight cancelled and the rest of the passengers rebooked?

  38. Alex Chasick says:

    @SpecialEd: How does asking a question equate to Consumerist getting its panties in a bunch? When I read the article, I saw that Carey said American’s gesture “seems nice,” but because someone else (not Consumerist) was upset, he put it up to the readers to decide.

  39. ClayS says:

    That’s because the government operates the space shuttle and a corporation operates this airline. Government good, corporations bad.

  40. chrissv says:

    American did the right thing.
    The passengers bought tickets for a flight from Chicago to London, not a flight from Chicago to London only if it is convenient for American or eco-friendly.

  41. Adam Hyland says:

    @KJones: But that’s the point of the issue. If they were overbooked and they didn’t need a plane in London, those people would have sat in NY or wherever.

    The people complaining about it need to STFU, honestly. It’s crap like this (and that nonsense Greenpeace “study” of computer makers, made entirely by reading FAQ’s on the company websites and assuming anything not on the FAQ was not a policy) that make it harder for GOOD environmental impact studies and complaints to be taken seriously.

    There is a need for serious environmental impact study and protest. This isn’t it.

  42. cuiusquemodi says:

    The plane needed to be in London. I imagine the flight crew also needed to be in London (unless AA had extra flight crews in London; I have no idea). The plane would have gone; the only significant marginal costs for the airline was meals and drinks.

  43. Bodgy says:

    This is all about PR. AA sucks and they know it. I was stranded in STL for 36 hours last week due to “air traffic congestion”. I didn’t get anything but abusive and hostile employees. There were enough people stranded to fill about 75% of an MD-80. We just kept going from gate to gate waiting for standby. The STL AA baggage office is an awful place too. They think lost bags are funny.

  44. MercuryPDX says:

    I bet if the five people stranded were members of “Friends of the Earth” on their way to an Al Gore speaking engagement in London there would be no outrage.

  45. iMike says:

    Voting no workee in Firefox?

  46. whatdoyoucare says:

    I am with American on this one. There was a story on the local news a few days ago about a mouse that was spotted on an airplane. The crew woudn’t take off until they found it bc they were worried about it chewing through cables/wires. Finally after 6 hours and still no mouse they decided to take off anyway. HOWEVER, there was a family who, as a result of the delay, missed their connection to their remote spring break destination- the only flight offered that week. That would completely suck. What if they had been saving their entire lives for it?

  47. raleel says:

    @discounteggroll: Well, I suppose now I’m more amazed at how anonymity on the internet brings out the worst in people. Geez, give it a rest. I read more than the headline and missed a sentence.

  48. carterbeauford says:

    should Sanjaya have been voted off American Idol?!?!

    WTF does it matter, it happened.

  49. DevPts says:

    @Bodgy: Probably could have spun the PR a bit better on this. ala:

    “One time only half fare to London…!!”
    “One time only half fare to London…!!”
    “First 100 passengers only…!!”

    For the tree huggers -> Shut Up already. It is really getting a bit old.

  50. Oracle989 says:

    @ClankBoomSteam: Do you now understand the purpose of overbooking? It’s so that they have no empty seats for when they get a no-show and they keep full efficiency with their planes. And no, to the rest of you that will cry about this being inefficient, it wasn’t, it was a plane headed that way anyways, these guys were just at the right place at the right time.

  51. DeltaPurser says:

    Five passengers, three pilots and probably 8 or 9 flight attendants… Should make for excellent service.

  52. StevieD says:

    You referred to it as “fleet management”. I believe the transportation industry calls it “repositioning”.

    Airlines do it all the time. Weather cancellations cause planes to be repositioned all the time.

  53. StevieD says:


    I agree.

    Sexists remark but I gott say it. I wonder if the any of the flight attendants looked any good?

  54. godawgs7 says:

    planes fly empty all over the world all the time. It’s not a huge deal. This flight just happened to end up in the news.

  55. strangeffect says:

    @iMike: it would seem not.

  56. Me - now with more humidity says:

    aa was smart

    you haters suck

  57. Chongo says:

    wouldn’t they of done it even if there wasn’t five passengers? we would of never heard about it otherwise.

  58. MoCo says:

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the plane carried a bunch of cargo to London. It may not have been as empty as it appeared.

  59. grrad says:

    I should be so lucky as to end up on flights like that! The last time I really enjoyed a flight were those just after 9/11. Delightful!

  60. faust1200 says:

    Planes have to fly empty (a.k.a “ferried”) all the time whether it be from a maintenance facility or simply because of a logistical issue. Jets are fuel guzzling hogs no matter who is on board. I declare this one a non-issue. Next.

  61. humphrmi says:

    I ended up on a nearly empty AA flight from LHR to ORD. The flight got delayed eight hours and while everyone else was scrambling to re-book, we took in some sightseeing and waited it out. They didn’t let us take over Business class but they did tell us to select a row (from one side of the aircraft to the other) and claim it as ours. We knew something was up when we approached the gate with our stroller to gate-check and they said “No need, just push it on in”. Since it was our first oversees trip with our son (who was then about two) it was perfect.

  62. AlphaTeam says:

    This is good publicity geared to the majority of flying population. Who cares about treehuggers. (jk)

  63. ChrisC1234 says:

    Dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t.

  64. tkerugger says:

    Ha Ha!!!

    I’m going to open a travel website for those who want to ride on these “repositioned” planes. As long as you can travel at 4am, don’t mind riding in planes fresh out of maintenance, and aren’t really that worried about getting home, the fares will be cheep!

    If only I could find a spokesperson as compelling as the Shat.

  65. zippygaelle says:

    I don’t get it — if they needed the plane in London, why did they cancel the flight and rebook all but 5 passengers in the first place?

  66. Viajero says:

    There are thousands of stories of corporate irresponsibility having to do with resource use. Why do you pick this weak-ass one?

    It’s not a story. Yeah, this kind of thing should never happen in 2008 with what we know about global warming. But c’mon, it’s not the best example out there. It’s the system that allows empty planes to fly, not American Airlines in this particular case.

    The ugly thing here are the oblivious comments from selfish “Ugly American” consumers who don’t give a damn about greenhouse gasses–only their own comfort. Clueless.

    It does happen all the time that airlines fly empty or near-empty planes. It’s understandable under the current way business is done. But it is wrong and has to change.

  67. quail says:

    I saw this article some days ago on Digg. People are just getting their panties in a twist over nothing. Airlines do this all of the time. Weather or mechanical break down cause a shortage of planes somewhere and a plane has to be flown in so that they don’t lose more money on the passengers that would be stranded otherwise. And these decisions are made on an hour by hour basis as to where the plane needs to come from. When the first plane was canceled they may not have known one would be needed from there for London. They could have been looking at bringing in a closer plane but that plan fell through.

  68. Buran says:

    @ChuckECheese: Unnecessary s in internet. Bring a dictionary.

  69. EvilConservative says:

    American should have just called up Al Gore… He’s always taking that big private jet back and forth across the pond. But, he’s special, after all. Not like “real people” who need to do as he says, not as he does. I’m sure he would have had lots of extra room.

    But then, American had to deadhead the plane over anyway so as usual, FOE, shut up and go suck on some carbon credits.

  70. ironchef says:

    the bigger environmental travesty is the hundreds of millions of single occupant vehicles commuting to work and clogging our skies with carbon monoxide.

  71. humphrmi says:

    @Viajero: Clueless Americans, eh? You are clueless about the workings of airline capacity. Over the last five years it has not only been a matter of conservation but cost savings that airlines substantially increase their RPM (Revenue Passenger Mile) and overall fuselage load factors. In fact, those load factors have been going up every year. Five years ago load factors were in the 60% range, today they are in the mid 80’s. The knock-on effect of this overall huge savings in fuel and reduction of greenhouse gasses is that every once in a while, in order to prevent a domino effect that leaves hundreds of passengers stranded, the airlines must reposition aircraft in order to meet their obligations. In this case, instead of sending the aircraft needed to accommodate hundreds of passengers at LHR empty, they sent five lucky patrons over the pond on the plane.

    Today the airline industry is far more efficient than it has ever been, as evidenced by the overcrowded planes and domino effects of one maintenance problem. Be happy that it’s more efficient now. We Americans are hardly more comfortable today on airlines than we were five years ago. Sheesh.

  72. Major-General says:

    @KJones: The reason the plane flew with five passengers was because it was delayed, and everyone else on board did rebook on other flights. The reason it was not cancelled completely was because of the 250+ passengers who would be in London wanting to return.

    @ironchef: Perhaps. Of course the fastest way to clean up pollution from cars is to remove any vehicle older than about 10 years from the road. As such I would like a 2008 Volvo V50 T5 AWD to replace my 1987 Volvo 740 GLE. Which passed smog at the level of an average 2002 vehicle.

  73. Coder4Life says:

    IF you bitch about htis I am sorry you will never be happy with any customer service you recieve…

  74. Greasy Thumb Guzik says:

    Not only did they need the plane for the return trip or for the next leg of its journey, but if they didn’t send it on, then American would have had to rebooked those passengers onto other airlines & that might not have been possible. There may not have been seats for them.

    Cruise ships are also repositioned, but since that is scheduled in advance, they’re able to book passengers for those sailings.

    But American should state as to whether there was cargo on board.
    That would take some heat off of them.

  75. Benny Gesserit says:

    @badgeman46: Agreed. Maybe they’d have been happier of they AA gate agents had run through the airport yelling “Who wants to go to London for FREE” and filled the plane with random people? (And used a full load of fuel, as you pointed out.)

  76. James Marino says:

    Damned if you do,
    Damned if you don’t.

  77. inspiron says:

    Consumerist! This story sucks and is obvious that AA did something that makes perfect sense, if there is nothing worthy of bringing then wouldn’t it just be better to not post anything?

    Worthless stories garbage stories is why I stopped watching TV years ago.

  78. Comeaja says:

    Well, American had a few options here, as far as I see. Theres some more I’m overlooking, don’t reply to me saying “You forgot sending them on a rocket to mars”.

    A: Have the passengers wait a long, long time.

    B: At no extra charge, have an empty plane brought up to make a special trip for them

    C: Do nothing.

    Which is the right awnser? Find out next time on… “COMMMMON SENSE!”

  79. AndrewJC says:

    @mantari: Well, the space shuttle uses liquid hydrogen as its fuel, so it’s only creating water when it gets burned. Zero environmental effect, unless you count the cost of creating the liquid hydrogen, which has to come from somewhere… :)

  80. redhand32 says:

    I guess the wait for the beverage cart wasn’t a big issue for them.

  81. LiC says:

    And they couldn’t have put them on another carrier’s flight because…?

  82. @LiC:
    “With such a small passenger load we did consider whether we could cancel the flight and re-accommodate the five remaining passengers on other flights.

    “However, this would have left a plane load of west-bound passengers stranded in London Heathrow who were due to fly back to the US on the same aircraft.”

    unless AA planned on putting everyone single person on the return flight on another carrier’s flight, this would make TOTAL sense.

  83. CornyFleur says:

    I am appalled, but not just because of the environmental waste.

    The REAL PROBLEM with many or msot airlines is their overbooking policies, and problematic means of getting people from here to there. There is a huge record fo overbooking, of fitting too much weight for the safety guidelines on one hand, ro of too few persons on the other hand.

    Unfortunately, the poll was limited to the choices above and was not well rounded enough for a more openended issue. Thank God for comments boxes.

    Agreeing with LiC, why not co-ordinate to let the other 5 on another com[any’s flight?

  84. gStein_*|bringing starpipe back|* says:

    @SaveMeJeebus: eeexactly.

  85. mthrndr says:

    “Friends of the Earth” can suck my white ass ball.

  86. Triborough says:

    Just sounds like they were making the best of what would have otherwise have been a non-revenue flight.
    Logically if one flight to LHR was canceled, that would mean that the aircraft that would have flown the return flight would not be there. So it winds up being a win-win for the effected passengers and the airline.

  87. sam1am says:

    Wow, I’m flying American.

    And it’s cold here, we could use more flights, car driving, burning plastic, whatever.

  88. algormortis says:

    Air Canada did this for us last year on a long international flight. There was a mess of cargo on another A330 and they were going to reposition it to a nearby airport anyways, so the repositioning flight took on enough crew to be legal with 9 passengers, they put us in Business and gave us Business meals and all, and the repositioning flight simply made a stop at our destination.

    It was pretty classy.

  89. aikoto says:

    So…. if they had taken half of the original flight and split it across two planes, would the eco-people have felt better?

  90. S-the-K says:

    @aikoto: You may be right. At the very least, the planeload of people crammed together like sardines on a trans-atlantic flight would probably preferred the airline split the passengers between the two planes. At least that way, everyone would have had extra elbow room, not just the lucky five sitting in Business Class.

    I wonder if they still pulled the curtain between business class and first class? :-)

    That must have been a sweet ride. Lift the armrests and each of the five passengers could have had their own row of seats to lay down on for the long flight. They could have each had their own lavatory.

  91. chrisjames says:

    Eco-scandal my ass. What about driving up ticket prices for flying around empty planes? This is a superb customer service example, yes. Whoo American! But shouldn’t we rather be questioning how often these empty flights go around for whatever reason, even something as fundamental as shifting planes, when they could instead be lading passengers on at super discounts? Why jack up prices if they can afford to throw metal into the air willy-nilly like this?

  92. nebraskabill says:

    Why do all the tree hugging whiners live in the hot climates. Move to the midwest and let me hear you bitch about global warming. OK scratch that, keep your sorry asses on the coasts, we don’t want you out here. Keep torching those Hummer dealerships and contributing to the eco damage. I am getting tired of the snow!!!!

  93. bbbici says:

    It was actually more environmentally friendly because the plane burned less fuel than it would have if it were fully loaded.

  94. MCShortbus says:

    This story was destined to be here. If they hadn’t we would have read about how AA bumped them and missed some meeting in London and are now suing American.

    -clicks option 3-

  95. ViperBorg says:

    Honestly, if the plane needed to go there anyway, they would have burned 22,000 pounds for NO passengers. Quit whining, honestly. Those people are lucky, and American is using this as a PR stunt, nothing more.

    -also clicks option 3-

  96. Jordan Lund says:

    They’re contractually obligated to take the passengers where they want to go, I guess they could just null the contract and re-fund the money… but good on them for fulfilling their obligation.

  97. BStu says:

    Wait, I don’t get it. They canceled a flight, but they had a plane that needed to go their anyway? Why did they rebook everyone when they could have just put them all on this plane?