At the start of a recent trip to Spain, my companions and I almost got ‘bumped’ from our flight. We weren’t overly impressed, so I decided to find out why airlines overbook their flights. 

After a short queue at the Gatwick check in desk, we presented our passports and the ticket on James’ phone. The man at the desk scanned the QR code on his machine and returned James his mobile. After a studied gaze at his screen and some button tapping, he turned to us with an uneasy expression.

“I’m afraid to tell you there’s been a problem. We overbooked this flight and unfortunately all the other passengers have already checked in online in advance. This means two of you” indicating Bill and I, “may not be able to fly today. I’m going to go upstairs to speak to my manager to find out what we can do”.

We were all, understandably, fuming. Once the man returned with has manager, she explained that very often customers who’ve checked in online don’t actually turn up, so we may as well go through to the departure lounge and try our luck. If, in the worst case scenario, we didn’t get through, the two of us who didn’t have boarding passes would be given a full refund and €250 for the inconvenience. But what about James who did have a valid boarding pass by the fact his name came before ours on the checking in list? Would he get a refund too, or be forced to fly without us?

A scandal, or good business?

What had happened was that we had, potentially, been denied boarding – or been ‘bumped’. The Daily Mail recently reported on a growing number of such cases, where airlines overbook their flights by as much as 50%. This practice, which isn’t illegal, is employed by the vast majority of airlines. I got in contact with easyJet for an explanation of the policy and was told that “like other airlines, easyJet overbooks on some flights to fill seats which would otherwise fly vacant”.

According to Brett Snyder, an air travel blogger, airlines realised that seats often go empty because passengers don’t show up for all sorts of reasons – from bad traffic to simply deciding not to fly. By gathering data on ‘no-shows’, airlines have got pretty good at estimating how many people will miss any given flight.

easyJet told me “2.6m passengers a year do not turn up for their easyJet flights and a flight will only be overbooked after reviewing the no show rate for the last 3 months. On average, across our flights we will only overbook by one or two passengers per flight.  As a result, it is extremely rare for easyJet to deny boarding of passengers because the flight is overbooked”.

Look for the cellos

A cello

Back at the flight desk, the manager was explaining that many of the people on our flight were bringing musical instruments, so it was possible some of those could be put in the hold. How likely it was that someone would agree to putting their £800 cello out of sight and at risk of being damaged for the sake of our holiday seemed questionable, but we agreed to go through the gates.

While we’d been told that we’d get a refund if the worst came to the worst, we were still unimpressed by easyJet’s model.

“Isn’t it pure profiteering, selling a service you never intend to deliver?”

That’s as may be. However an article by Sabri Ben-Achour on Marketplace explained that, in the US, at least, this kind of approach may be one of the ways ‘no-frills’ airlines manage to keep flight prices down. That was of little consolation as we drunk lagers at the airport’s Wetherspoons, and anyone who walked past with a musical instrument got the staring treatment as we discussed our alternatives.

Good cop, bad cop?

As the Heinekens went down we began talking about how we ought to deal with easyJet staff when we arrived at the gate. Should we play it mean, be angry and let them know how pissed off we were? Do we make their life a misery so they think “I’ll do what I can to get these guys out my hair”? Or, should we be nice and understanding; make them like us, so they’d want to help us out?

We then started talking about what we’d do if it all went wrong and we couldn’t fly. Would we take their offer and get a refund and go home? Would we use the €250 for a replacement flight the same day (some googling on our phones suggested there was no such alternative)? Maybe we should blow it all on a huge night out in the nearest town…which turned out to be Croydon.

The gate

The beers finished, we made our way to the gate. We’d been told to wait right until all the other passengers had boarded the flight before asking about spare seats, so watched the queue gradually shrink. Ahead of us was a Spaniard who, it appeared, was in a similar situation to us. He’d gone for the ‘bad cop’ approach and was telling an easyJet employee off. He had to go home to Valencia, it was a family event, he couldn’t miss it.

We waited our turn, anxious. “Hi there, so we have an unfortunate situation and were hoping you could help”. The woman at the desk was indifferent and told us to wait aside. At the first eye roll, she curtly informed us other passengers had checked in online “up to thirty days in advance”.

Standing to the side, feeling obscurely like misbehaved schoolchildren, we watched the dregs of the passengers arrive and embark. The last of the musicians, pulling their cellos and violins and other instruments that were taking up seats which we could’ve sat on.

Eventually it was just us and the Spaniard left. The woman at the desk told James he should go through – he had checked in. “But I’m not going on holiday on my own – surely you have to refund me?”

“I’m afraid in that case you would be declining to fly, so we are under no obligation to pay you back”.

A couple of minutes until the gates were going to close, and apparently there was still three people unaccounted for, three people who might come running through the gates any time and take our seats. We waited nervously, chatting briefly with the Spaniard, then, dismay, a Chinese girl came rushing towards our gate. We were aware as she began talking to attendant at the desk that it was then going to come down to a fight for tickets between Bill, me and the Spaniard.

But then the air hostess: “OK, this is actually a flight to Valencia – your flight is to Porto, which is at Gate 27”.

Minutes later we were running down the tunnel to the flight doors and onto the last available seats, massively relieved.

Have your aeroplane and fly it too

Ultimately, the manager at check in had been right. As she’d predicted, a number of fliers simply wouldn’t turn up. Was it worth putting us through an hour or so of anxiety at the airport? It hardly seems the most reasonable way of treating customers. On the other hand, we got return flights to Valencia for £80 each; perhaps we’d have had to pay considerably more had the flight only been booked to capacity.

The moral of the story? As soon as we connected to the WiFi at the hostel, James checked us in for the flight home.