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Imagine the scene. You’ve just sat down in your seats looking forward to finally flying off on a long overdue holiday. The plane is busy, passengers are milling around finding their seats, air stewards are packing bags into overhead lockers.
Then an announcement comes over the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’d like to inform you that today’s flight is overbooked. We’re looking for volunteers to leave this flight and accept our offer of a later connection.”
What? Overbooked?? What does that mean?
Compensating For No-Shows
Flight overbooking is actually a very common practice in the airline industry. Because it costs so much to fly a plane, airlines are very keen to have the maximum number of passengers on every flight. With that in mind, they will keep selling tickets even when a flight is full.
They can do this because so many passengers don’t show up for their flights, or fail to turn up on time at least. It’s estimated that the airline industry sells around 150 tickets for every 100 seats available – which gives you an idea of just how many no-shows there are for flights.
Inevitably, there are times on individual flights when everyone who has bought a ticket shows up. And that’s when you get the situation of airlines asking customers to take other flights. If they don’t get volunteers, they will ‘bump’ passengers off at random, usually those who board last for whom there is no longer any space.
If that happens to be you, you would be entitled to feel angry and frustrated – but there would be very little you could do. As we’re seeing at the moment with the high number of flight cancellations, it’s common practice in the air travel industry for passengers to get shunted onto different flights, often with very little (or zero) notice.
In fact, the current problems facing the air industry are likely to be increasing the number of passengers who get moved because of overbooking. Fewer flights increases the chances of any single flight being overbooked. And after the heavy financial losses they incurred during the pandemic, airlines are even more concerned with maximizing their revenues by making sure every flight takes off as full as possible.
Making Sure You’re Not Left Out of Pocket
So what might it mean for your holiday if you are on an overbooked flight and do end up being bumped onto an alternative?
The first thing to emphasize is that, whether you volunteer for or are picked out to be moved to another flight, you are entitled to compensation for the inconvenience. There is an EU-wide set of regulations governing passenger compensation that covers delayed departures, being refused boarding (when the passenger is not at fault), cancellations and being transferred to a different flight. The UK still follows the EU’s regulations, and the compensation limits are as follows:
- £220 for flights of 1500km or less
- £360 for flights between 1500km and 3500km
- £530 for flights over 3500km
While this looks generous at first glance, linking compensation to the distance of your flight doesn’t work out great for everyone. What really matters is any additional costs you incur as a result of being bumped onto another flight. In particular, anyone who gets bumped from a short haul flight is at a disadvantage.
A flight from London to Ibiza, for example, clocks in at just over 1400km. So the maximum compensation you could receive is £220. What if you had to change or extend your car park booking at the airport to get another flight? Or check into a local hotel for a night to catch your new flight the next day? Or book train tickets to come back?
There’s also nothing to say that the new flight you get put on has to go from the same airport. This story of an EasyJet customer who had to travel from Bristol to Gatwick for a new flight after volunteering to be bumped underlines how that can add significant costs to your trip.
And what about the cost of lost nights in your accommodation if you don’t end up arriving until a day or two later than planned? You’d be very unlikely to get a refund. So again you’d be looking at airline compensation to cover your losses.
When you put all of these things together, it starts to become clear that even with statutory compensation due to any passenger who is moved off an overbooked flight, you could still end up out of pocket.
The answer? Make sure you have a decent travel insurance policy with a high level of cancellation cover. For the purposes of travel insurance, ‘cancellation’ applies whether it’s a cancelled or altered flight or a full trip cancellation. And it is designed to cover all of your costs, not just a narrow part of them.