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Explainer: Why on earth do airlines overbook flights? And do Irish airlines do it?

“Because it makes sense to do so” and “yes, at least Aer Lingus sometimes does” are the answers.

harrison Harrison Ford ejecting terrorist Gary Oldman from Air Force One during the movie, erm, Air Force One Source: Youtube

US AIR CARRIER United Airlines is currently the centre of some rather unwanted publicity, to put it mildly.

The forcible removal on Sunday night of an Asian man from a flight between Chicago and Louisville, Kentucky, went viral after a number of fellow passengers filmed the man screaming as he left the plane.

It later emerged that the man, who claimed to be a doctor, had been requested to volunteer to leave the flight and was offered a series of financial incentives to do so – up to $800 in fact was offered to the passengers who eventually left the plane, and United were authorised to go as high as $1,350.

Those passengers were asked to leave due to the plane being overbooked for its journey, and United needed to get four of its employees to Louisville in order to make their shifts for the following day elsewhere on the airline’s network.

But that doesn’t mean that overbooking is uncommon. It happens all the time on flights across the board, not just American ones. It’s perfectly legal (and mostly common sense), and it’s not unheard of it happening in Ireland either.

No-shows

“As with all other airlines our flights can be overbooked from time to time,” a spokesperson for Aer Lingus told TheJournal.ie, when asked as to the airline’s policy on the subject.

This can result from operational disruption where a lower capacity aircraft is substituted for the one originally planned or sometimes, where a particular route (normally) has a high level of no-shows, bookings may exceed the number of seats available.
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.

Meanwhile, when contacted for comment Ryanair was a little more to the point:

“Unlike other airlines, Ryanair does not overbook flights,” a spokesperson said.

Leaving that aside, overbooking is apparently “something that most airlines do”, according to a source familiar with the subject, who nevertheless described United’s less-than-conciliatory approach to the situation as “bizarre”.

The US has the best statistics for this, with just 552,000 (0.09%) of travellers being denied the right to travel on their designated flights within American airspace in 2015.

Aer Lingus’ approach in such situations is, according to their spokesperson, to deal with the situation prior to check-in, before a boarding card can be delivered.

Summer weather June 1st 2015Â Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Such a situation is known as ‘denied boarding’, and compensation for same is set out under EU regulation 261, with the money paid out proportional to the distance of the flight being missed:

  • €250 for all flights of 1,500 kilometres or less
  • €400 for all intra-Community flights of more than 1,500 kilometres, and for all other flights between 1,500 and 3,500 kilometres
  • €600 for all flights not falling under either of the above categories

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Business flights

So why does overbooking happen? Well, normally such situations arise on business flights it seems.

“Business travellers change their plans very rapidly, meetings get cancelled or circumstances change, and often they just won’t show up,” says our source.

If you’re in a situation where you have 20 flights between a destination daily and 10% of passengers aren’t showing up for their bookings, the airline is going to keep selling flights.

Conversely, the issue is a lot less likely to be seen on a flight where a family has booked a holiday many months in advance – such passengers will almost always show up.

Domestic American journeys meanwhile, of which the now-infamous United flight was one, see situations that “are more akin to a bus station” the source says.

You’re talking an airport where United might have 20 flights leaving per day on that route, huge amounts of people showing up for flights they’re not booked on, huge amounts of people not showing up at all, and then security is that much less than what a European traveller might be used to.
So they won’t let you on at first, but as they’re pulling up the ramp and they still have space, they’ll take you on.

So, to summarise, it’s possible that an Irish traveller could find themselves on an overbooked flight, but not for the reasons seen in Chicago. And an Irish flier won’t be removed from a flight they’ve already boarded.

Read: Officer who forcibly removed passenger from plane is suspended from duty

Read: Airline CEO apologises for ‘re-accommodating’ man thrown off plane

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