Flight overbooking: does it happen here and could you be bumped?

Passengers who give up seats entitled to lump sum, refund and cost of ticket, regulations say

United Airlines has encountered some serious turbulence this week after a passenger on one of its internal US flights was hauled off an aircraft because of the airline's policy of overbooking flights.

But could such a thing happen here? And what kind of compensation could you get if it did? And what is overbooking anyway?

The answers to the first and second parts of that question are: it depends; and the third part is hideously complicated.

"Unlike other airlines, Ryanair does not overbook flights," a spokesman told The Irish Times. When he was referring to other airlines, he might have had Aer Lingus in mind because it does allow for overbooking although a spokeswoman assured us that it was "rare".


“As with all other airlines our flights can be overbooked from time to time,” she said. “This can result from operational disruption where a lower capacity aircraft is substituted for the one originally planned or sometimes, where a particular route has a high level of no-shows, bookings may exceed the number of seats available.”

She added that these instances “are rare and in such an event we seek volunteers to travel on the next available flight and compensate the volunteers accordingly. Our procedure is to deal with these matters at the point of checking-in in order to minimise any disruption to our guests”.

So, the chances of anyone being hauled of a Ryanair flight is zero and off an Aer Lingus flight remote in the extreme.


But what are the levels of compensation available to those who do get bumped?

According to EU rules – EU Regulation 261/2004, to be specific – passengers have clear rights when being bumped.

If a flight is overbooked, an airline will first call for volunteers to surrender their seats in exchange for agreed benefits. In addition to a cash lump sum, volunteers are also entitled to either a refund of the cost of their ticket within seven days if they decide not to travel, or a re-routing to their final destination at the earliest opportunity or at a later date of their choosing, subject to availability of seats.

If there are not enough volunteers, the airline may deny boarding to passengers against their will but must compensate them and offer the appropriate assistance, including free food, refreshments and hotel accommodation as well as transport between the hotel and the airport.

Levels of compensation differ depending on the distance and can go from €250 to €600.

Why overbook?

As to why airlines overbook, the simple answer is money. They make more doing it. They use statistics culled from historical travel patterns to predict how likely it is that passengers will show up for particular flights, taking into consideration traffic in and out of airports, weather, flight connections and the time a plane is due to depart.

And they sell on that basis. If an airline sells every seat on a 180-seat plane at $150 per seat, it makes $27,000. If it sells 15 extra tickets it makes $29,250 but that falls to $17,250 if everyone shows up and 15 people get compensated to the tune of $800 each.

But the airlines know that the chances of 195 people showing up is pretty much zero and if they can increase revenue by $2,250 on every flight and they have 100 of them a day, they could increase their annual revenues by a massive $82 million, give or take a few dollars.

Mind you, when someone who has been “voluntarily” bumped off a flight against their will is filmed by fellow passengers as they are hauled off the plane by over-zealous security staff, all the numbers and the odds go out the window, don’t they?

Conor Pope

Conor Pope

Conor Pope is Consumer Affairs Correspondent, Pricewatch Editor and cohost of the In the News podcast