Reality Check: Airlines Won’t Stop Overbooking (And You Won’t Get Rich Being Bumped)

Image courtesy of Eric BEAUME

Despite promises from United Airlines and Delta Air Lines to boost compensation for bumped passengers and Southwest Airline’s vow to do away with the practice altogether, you probably aren’t going to score $10,000 the next time you fly — and there’s still a chance your flight will be overbooked in the future.

For all the apologies and vouchers handed out whenever a flight is overbooked, airlines are fully aware that they often have more people slated to sit on a plane than there are seats on that jet.

That’s because they know that bad things happen that ruin or change travelers’ plans: Someone doesn’t set an alarm, traffic is bad on the way to the airport, or a traveler misses their connection. So to cover their butts, overbooking or overselling a flight to account for those inevitable no-shows makes sense for carriers, notes The Wall Street Journal .

Many of the large carriers have taken the stance that if they don’t intentionally oversell a flight, they’d have to raise ticket prices instead — which is something passengers would surely rail against.

It seems to be working: In 2016, U.S. airlines filled 82.2% of their seats, the WSJ notes.

Indeed, Delta CEO Ed Bastian called overbooking “a valid business process” earlier this month.

“It is not a question…as to whether you overbook,” he told investors. “It’s how you manage an overbook situation.”

You still might get bumped even if the airline doesn’t overbook. For example, carriers often switch from larger to smaller aircraft, or need to accommodate employees as in the case of United and Dr. David Dao.

To that end, while involuntarily bumping passengers can happen — and in some rare instances, lead to unfortunate altercations like the one with United and Dr. David Dao, the paying passenger dragged off a flight earlier this month — it’s not likely that you’ll get a chance to score thousands of dollars if you’re denied boarding despite holding a ticket.

Bloomberg points out that the new headline-grabbing maximum payouts of $10,000 for bumped passengers are largely just publicity stunts, given that most passengers are more than willing to give up their seats on a flight for less than $1,000.

Yes, one Delta flyer and her family ultimately racked up $11,000 by allowing themselves to be bumped from crammed flights, but that was for three seats, and involved giving up those seats on multiple flights. The most Delta paid out per seat to that family was $1,350, which is still $8,650 less than the new “maximum.”

According to government data [PDF], last year, about 434,400 people willingly gave up their seats, while about 40,600 found themselves in “involuntary denied boarding” situations