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Cynthia Clark | November 24, 2011

The Effect of Airline Overbooking on Customer Service

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Imagine this scenario: A woman buys a dress from a department store and leaves it for some alterations. When she goes to pick it up some time later she is told that the dress has been resold to someone else and is offered another outfit and compensation.

Many people would find this situation completely unacceptable. They would argue that a company cannot sell something that another person had already bought and would consider it the embodiment of bad customer service. By all intents and purposes that dress belonged to the person who bought it first, even if she left it in the store.

While most of us would be shocked with such a situation, we seem to take it for granted that airlines regularly overbook their planes and offer ticket holders compensation if they take a later flight. That's what happened to one of my friends two weeks ago when he was travelling for a wedding. After refusing compensation, he threatened to sue the airline unless he was either given a seat on that plane or put on another flight that would get him to his destination that same day. That was when the airline scrambled to find other passengers who were willing to accept a substantial amount of money to take a later flight. But what would have happened if nobody accepted to take a later flight? Would he have had to miss the wedding?

According to the U.S. government's web portal, "most airlines overbook their flights to compensate for 'no-shows'," which, an Associated Press article said is usually one in 10 passengers. In fact, the New York Times described flight overbooking as a "science," which airlines have gotten better at, thanks to refined computer tools that helps them predict which passengers will not show up for a flight.

However, predictions can be wrong. Moreover, overbooking is not illegal, although the Department of Transportation requires airlines to ask people to voluntarily give up their seats in exchange for compensation. But this still begs the question: What happens if no passenger wants to voluntarily give up his seat? Surely, somebody would be left behind against his will.

With the holidays quickly approaching and travel traffic expected to increase, these questions become even more pertinent. Are customers who already paid for their tickets, have likely booked hotels, taken time off work, and are looking forward to a relaxing time away from home risking being left behind? And does compensation always make up for a stressful start or end to a vacation?

Furthermore, even if it's not illegal to bump passengers from a flight they've already booked, shouldn't this be considered as bad customer service at a time when the way companies treat their clients is what distinguishes them from the competition?

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