Why airlines overbook flights?

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Aunited Airlines airplane

Flying with empty seats is a lost opportunity for airlines to make money. So they use computerized systems to predict how many passengers will show up on-time for their flights or will missed them based on certain criteria.

With any flight a number of people simply won’t show up – the no-shows – becoming part of a ratio which varies from destination to destinations and from date to date.

Airport hubs such as the San Francisco Intl Airport, the London Heathrow, or the German Frankfurt are known to have high percentage of no-show passengers. Data shows that passengers originating from airport hubs or flying into them are more likely to not show up for their flights on-time then passengers that fly out of small, regional airports. Passengers can be delayed getting to the airport hub because of heavy road traffic, public transportation service outages, bad weather, or simply being delayed on their incoming flights. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation one-fourth or 75% of all U.S. domestic flights arrived late in 2016 causing a lot of people to miss their connecting flight. Every missed passenger’s connection will result in an empty seat on that outbound flight.

If passengers originate their travel from small, regional, or secondary airports, they are less likely to miss their flights since there are fewer daily flights leaving from such airports as well as less options of other transportation to be considered. Passengers have to be on time upon departure if they’re to make their journey.

However, flying or connecting via airport hubs offers more transportation option even if passengers get late or delayed for their flights. The probability of flights to end up with empty seats is much higher at airport hubs then at regional airports. To avoid financial loss airlines need to overbook or sale more seats to account for the estimated number of passengers that most likely will not show up for their flight at all.

The day of the week is also a factor in the equation of no-show passengers. Flights on Sunday may be less likely to have no-shows as passengers need to be at work on Monday morning. To the contrary, flights departing on Fridays or Saturdays may be more prone to no-shows.

There is no reliable public source of information on how many passengers actually don’t show up for their flights in the U.S. Such information, however, is used by airlines to predict how many seats they can oversell. Such predictions are based on safely guarded computer models that with time become ever more sophisticated allowing airlines to sell these none existing seats safely. Meaning, this many hypothetical number of passengers will not show up and the overbooked passengers without even them knowing will be boarded to fill in these otherwise empty seats.

In the “unfortunate” event when the prediction math doesn’t add up and passengers need to be bumped out of a flight is when it gets tricky. By law airlines in the U.S. can take you off a flight even if you have a ticket in hand. They’re also legally obliged to compensate you. One would think that the pay outs for compensating bumped passengers adds up for the airlines? Yes indeed, but not nearly as much as airlines harvest cash by overbooking.

Let’s recall what happened to that United Airlines passenger forcefully removed against his will from Flight UA3411 that had to depart Chicago O’Hare Airport to Louisville, Kentucky on April 9, 2017. A flight that unfolded as a PR disaster for United Airlines! How can you ensure that you might not become the next victim of an overbooked flight? Here are a few tips.

Airlines may use a hierarchal system that red-flags passengers with the least value to them. The passengers who checked-in last or don’t have millage affiliation with the airline (premier status) are most likely to be selected for involuntary removal. So next time you travel check-in early or online. Reserve a seat, even if you have to pay and you will be less likely to be selected. Having a loyalty status mileage account with the airline will put you in a much better position among the masses of travels who lack such loyalty status.

The bottom line is all about profit. Airlines seem to thrive today. The ticket price is the number one factor that matter to most passengers as they‘re likely to buy with whatever airline is the cheapest. This current trend of behavior among the common travelers leads to the rise of budget airlines who rattled the airline industry for the past decade significantly. Thus, overbooking and other airline ticket restrictions we have seen over the past years is the ultimate response to airlines to stay profitable, competitive, and adequately react to demand.

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Ian Powers is a travel blogger and nature enthusiast. Ian has over 20 years of aviation travel experience.

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