It was a Sunday evening in the fall of 2015, and Aleksi Jyrälä was on his way back from Amsterdam to Helsinki. The plan was to make it back home in time for work on Monday morning. But when Jyrälä printed his boarding pass from the check-in machine at Schiphol Airport, there was no seat number. Instead the printout read “Standby.” When he inquired about the change, KLM staff informed him that he and his travel group of ten people would not be able to board the flight, as it had been overbooked.
“I was surprised. Usually they ask for volunteers to be bumped off, but we were just told that we would not fit on this flight, or any of the ones leaving on Sunday,” Jyrälä says. “I wasn’t too bothered, but many who had important work commitments on Monday morning had a harder time because of the missed flight.”
As compensation, the airline provided Jyrälä and his companions 400 euros each, and paid for their dinner and overnight stay at the airport hotel. The next day, they were able to fly back to Helsinki through Stockholm.
United Airlines debacle puts a spotlight on overbooking
Flight overbooking has recently been in the limelight because of a viral video in which security officers remove a passenger from a United Airlines flight with considerable force.
The airline has since apologized for the incident. According to United, they tried to find volunteers to change their flight – offering up to 1000 dollars in compensation. But as no one was willing to take the offer, they had to ask four passengers to stay behind. As the man in the video had refused to deplane, security removed him from his seat by force.
The passenger in question has taken legal action against the airline, and two security officers have been placed on leave in connection with the incident.
Overbooking is standard practice for airlines
Airlines regularly overbook their flights to avoid empty seats. For most flights, the number of tickets sold surpasses the number of seats on the plane. As plane tickets can be booked up to a year before the actual departure date, there are a number of cancellations and no-shows for each flight. According to Finnair, there can be hundreds of cancellations and rebookings per flight.
Overbooking helps to increase air traffic efficiency, as it ensures that planes fly as fully booked as possible. This not only keeps ticket prices at a healthy level but also helps to lower emissions from air travel.
“Without overbooking, a lot of passengers would not be able to book a seat on their desired flight as it would be on hold until departure, and yet still empty when the plane actually takes off,” Finnair writes in their blog post about overbooking.
“Normally, customers won’t experience any inconvenience from overbooked flights,” says a KLM representative via email.
If there are, however, no cancellations or no-shows, and every ticket holder actually wants to board an overbooked flight, airlines try to find volunteers willing to be bumped to a later flight. This is usually already done at check-in or at the gate.
“If we do not find enough volunteers, passengers must sometimes be moved to a different flight against their wishes,” Finnair writes.
According to EU regulations, airlines must offer compensation to customers unable to board their flight. The compensation can be several hundred euros, and in addition the airlines often offer other services such as free meals and accommodation, and of course a new flight to the destination.
“We do our utmost to minimize the inconvenience for the passenger(s) without a seat,” assures the KLM representative.
Overbooking can be a good thing for flexible travellers
For Aleksi Jyrälä, the delay caused by overbooking wasn’t too much of a bother.
"But in the end, I did save money on the flights and got to travel back home in business class."
“Mostly I was annoyed by the extra hassle, and would have liked to be notified in advance by the airline. I could have gladly stayed an extra day in Amsterdam, instead of having to deal with the situation at the airport,” Jyrälä says. “But in the end, I did save money on the flights and got to travel back home in business class.”
In other overbooking situations, Jyrälä says he’s sometimes more than happy to volunteer changing flights.
“If my plans are flexible, absolutely. Recently, on my layover in Paris on my way to Brazil, I was actually a bit bummed out that I wasn’t quick enough to volunteer. The compensation would have covered most of my flight costs, and I’d have gotten a free overnight stay in Paris.” According to airlines, most cases of overbooking are in fact settled voluntarily through compensation.