Tuesday 20 February 2018

Ask the Expert: What are the odds of being bumped off a flight?

Airlines & overbooking

Airplane passengers. Photo: Deposit
Airplane passengers. Photo: Deposit
A United Airlines plane

Gavin Haines

United Continental offered a masterclass in bad PR this week by forcibly removing a passenger from an overbooked flight.

Since the incident, which was filmed on a mobile phone, the airline has shed around $250m in market value and become the subject of an inquiry by the US Department of Transportation. All things considered, not a good week.

The saga has also shone a spotlight on the controversial practice of overbooking, which is done by airlines to reduce the amount of empty seats they have on flights.

Airlines bank on a percentage of passengers not showing up for their flight and double book seats accordingly. Their sums are based on statistics that are analysed by computer models; often they get it right, sometimes they don’t.

It’s legal for airlines to overbook flights and the practice is more common than you might think. In fact, in the US, which provides the best statistics on the subject, the chance of a passenger being denied boarding because of overbooking is 1 in 1,000.

When you consider that a Boeing 777 can carry more than 500 passengers, those odds seem quite low.

According to the US government, 434,000 passengers voluntarily gave up seats on the country's largest 12 airlines last year, including nearly 63,000 on United. The champion of overbooking was Delta Air Lines – about 130,000 passengers flying with the carrier gave up their seats last year to accommodate for overbooking. 

The vast majority of passengers who are “bumped” are willing volunteers, encouraged onto another flight by the prospect of compensation or an upgrade.

In the EU, compensation can vary from €250 to €600 depending on the length of the delay and the distance of the flight (see flightrights.ie for more).

In the wake of the United incident, Ryanair has said it does not bump passengers off flights, and Aer Lingus has said its use of the practise is "rare".

A United Airlines plane
A United Airlines plane

According to the compensation company, AirHelp, there are ways to reduce the likelihood of being “bumped” from a flight.

“Flyers are less likely to get bumped if they are frequent travellers with the airline they are travelling with,” said Marius Fermi, UK country manager. “So signing up for frequent flyer programs is one way to decrease their chances of being bumped from an overbooked flight.”

Flying off-peak will also reduce your chances of being “bumped”.

“Those choosing to fly early in the morning versus later in the evening are less likely to board an overbooked flight,” he said.


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