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How is it legal for airlines to overbook flights?

Airlines say if they sell extra seats to make up for people skipping a flight, they can absorb some of the fuel costs and keep ticket prices lower.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Ahh, the airport. What a wonderful, magical place. You start your day with a refreshing stress-sprint from the parking lot, taking you to the ticket counter—where you get to cross your fingers and hope that your bag isn’t too heavy to be loaded without fees. Next comes the invigorating smell of bare feet, wafting from the TSA line that has wrapped all the way down past the Cinnabon. And the cherry on top: you get to your gate, ready to board your plane, only to find out that the flight is overbooked and there’s no seat for you.

A lot of people ask: how is it even legal for airlines to sell more seats than they actually have? It’s a fair question, and turns out the airlines DO have their reasons (it’s up to you to decide whether or not you think they’re enough justification).

For what it’s worth, Ben Mutzabaugh—the Senior Aviation Editor for the online travel magazine The Points Guy, with hundreds of thousands of flown miles under his belt—thinks the justifications DO add up.

“I understand why the average person on the street might say, ‘hey, why are you allowing this to happen?” Mutzabaugh acknowledged. “Airlines overbook flights because they know based on historical models that a certain percentage of passengers never show up. And that could be because they are actually a no-show, or maybe a connecting passenger got delayed and missed their connecting flight. So there is some ability the airlines have to predict that on any given flight a certain number of people won’t show up.”

Turns out, the airlines have gotten crazy good at making these calculated guesses as to how many people will skip or miss the flight. The companies argue that allowing them to overbook these flights allows them to absorb more of the fuel costs, and keep ticket prices lower for you and me.

“I actually think there’s probably some truth to that,” Mutzabaugh said. “You know, the more efficient airlines can sell seats and bring in revenue it probably does create downward pressure on fares. But, it does also help the bottom line.”

Now, sometimes there algorithms are off, and two people show up for the same seat. Between January and June of 2019, the Department of Transportation tracked just under 300,000 people “bumped” from their booked flights due to overbooking. That may sound like a lot, but keep in mind: there were almost 420 million passengers during that same time frame. That means that less than 0.1% of passengers were bumped.

People who get bumped from flights are entitled to compensation under the law; but, airlines don’t want to have public arguments with angry customers (particularly in the age of Twitter), so they will often times ask for volunteers and sweeten the deal with perks like free flights or even cash. That explains why of the almost 300,000 people bumped, 96% were volunteers.

“Maybe you can make $400 or $600 or $800 depending on how desperate the airline is,” Mutzabaugh offered. “So, I definitely think there’s an upside to it if you’ve got the flexibility.

For the record, Mutzabaugh—with his hundreds of thousands of miles flown during his 20 years as a travel journalist—has only been bumped once. It was a bump he volunteered for.

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