The practice of overbooking flights has been in the spotlight since a United Airlines passenger was dragged off a plane in Chicago, his face bloodied by his encounter with aviation security personnel. Clearly, such violence against a booked, paid, seated passenger cannot be condoned. There have been other instances as well of high-handed behaviour by airlines insistent on evicting customers at the last minute.
Obviously, it is essential, for reasons of safety, that passengers heed the crew's instructions once a plane is up in the air. However, on the ground, one would expect the airline to pay more attention to customer service, and not throw its weight around simply to have its own way. In the case of United, the situation could have been averted at the outset, with better monitoring of bookings, and at the breaking point, with better customer handling policies. Bloodied noses should not be part of standard operating procedures.
Airlines defend their practice of overbooking by arguing that no-shows are fairly common for certain flight routes and sectors. Overbooking enables airlines to make full use of available capacity, while passengers hope this will lead to cheaper tickets. By employing historical flight data to calculate the chances of no-shows for each route, airlines believe they can ensure there is no chaos at the boarding gates with more passengers than seats available. It therefore comes as no surprise that the International Air Transport Association (Iata) has defended the practice, arguing that the specific nature of the airline business makes it necessary. Fundamentally, an airline seat is a perishable commodity: If empty, wastage will result. Banning overbooking would take a toll on airlines' profit margins and air connectivity in the long run, it is argued.
The proportion of passengers inconvenienced by overbooking might not look alarming: It was reportedly 0.07 per cent of travellers in the United States last year. The absolute numbers, however, should give pause for thought. Around 475,000 passengers in the US were denied boarding owing to overbooked flights last year. Of them, 40,000 were classified as being involuntary.
Hence, the regulatory authorities ought to finetune their approach to this industry practice. For example, the United fiasco began when several of its employees were told to travel that route for operational reasons. Big airlines will have a greater need to transport staff across their networks. But should passengers pay the price for this practice, as well as for poor management of oversold seats? Iata and regulators should consider a better balance between the interests of passengers and airlines. For example, should more compensation be offered to passengers who are "bumped" from flights? Delta airlines has improved incentives for leaving voluntarily. Others should follow suit.