The aviation sector is becoming increasingly competitive. Multi-million dollar aircraft purchases or leasing costs means that if a plane is not in the sky, it’s not making the airline revenue. This means tighter turnaround times, congested schedules, and most importantly for passengers, more seats sold on every flight.
Long gone are the days when early morning or late evening departures might have afforded early risers a half-empty aircraft—every seat needs to be sold.
As a result, there are more headlines and stories about passengers being kicked off overbooked flights. Low-cost airlines tend to fill every seat on a flight, and not overbook. This is because almost always, all the passengers turn up, but also because low-cost airlines simply can’t afford the financial fallout and compensation due to passengers from overbooked aircraft.
Full-service carriers have long over-sold seats, particularly in premium cabins where they have the option of downgrading passengers in the event that flexible ticket holders don’t change their flight or every passenger turns up.
But what exactly do airlines offer passengers, and is it worth it?
When airlines know that a flight is overbooked they will often make low offers at check-in counters or online for passengers to change their flights. Airlines aren’t legally obliged to offer cash and will often provide a future travel voucher that can only be used on that airline, in addition to paying for a hotel or food vouchers until a flight later that day.
My advice is to never take this offer. If the airline is doing so well on the route that it is overbooked, I don’t feel that passengers should have their schedules thrown into disarray for the sake of a few hundred dollars of future travel vouchers. Hold out. Things get more interesting.
Airlines will essentially start to hold an auction amongst passengers at the gate, or even onboard. If you hear an announcement looking for passengers onboard to volunteer to take the next flight, then you know the airline is late to the game and becoming desperate. Asking for $1,000 of travel vouchers to be removed from an international flight is not an unfair starting point, but you can certainly go higher than this.
Last year, an American passenger Allison Preiss received a $10,000 travel voucher for being bumped off a United flight. Preiss had to be bumped off the flight due to a broken seat but the airline couldn’t find anyone willing to give up their seat. She was entitled to around $650 of cash for her ticket and after turning down a $2,000 flight voucher, the United gate agent was authorised to provide up to $10,000, which were new rules to prevent unsavoury situations and negative headlines for airlines when no passenger wants to take the next flight. I think it’s safe to say that many passengers would take $10,000 of future flights for a later flight!
When no one actually volunteers to change to another flight, this is when passengers are not only entitled to travel voucher compensation but also cash compensation.
In these situations, it is always worth asking an airline what extras they will give you such as hotels and food vouchers. The delay that an overbooked flight can cause an airline’s bottom line will likely work out to be far more than a few thousand dollars of travel vouchers with the knock-on schedule effect, which is why they will often accommodate passengers within reason.
The only variable here is whether you have the time and flexibility to make some extra cash for future travel by taking a later flight, but the main advice would be, it’s a very grey area both for airline staff and for passengers, so never accept the first offer and look to negotiate within reasons. Gate agents in the U.S. now have the authority to grant up to $10,000 of travel vouchers, so think big!