There are two types of people in the world: People who lose their s*** when they find out they're being bumped from an overbooked flight... and those who are stoked to get their hands on the compensation they'll be offered for the inconvenience.
Indeed, Travel + Leisure estimates that 50,000 people in both categories are bumped from flights every year. It seems pretty easy to see why airlines would take this approach, even if it's not the best for customer relations: By selling more tickets than airplanes have seats, airlines ensure they'll take off with a full flight, even if people no-show or cancel at the last minute.
But the practice is not as straightforward as that simple explanation alone describes. The Points Guy notes a much more complex explanation involving complex math, with algorithms factoring in the likes of traffic, weather, connecting flights, and time of day.
From this, airlines have learned over time just how many seats they should plan to oversell without losing money on rebooking bumped passengers on new flights with availability, or compensating them. Basically, if you've been told your airline has no more seats to accommodate your tush, you can be assured it's not because somebody miscounted. In fact, it's quite the opposite. And yes, of course the approach is all about dollars and cents to an airline — which is also the thing that solves plenty of airplane-related mysteries you may frequently ponder.
It can certainly feel like a gut punch to be bumped, leaving you standing shocked and helpless at the airport — especially if you are traveling for a particular occasion or on limited time. The Points Guy suggests learning your rights right now so you can be armed with an approach should this happen to you: "Passengers bumped from a flight in the U.S. are entitled to 'denied boarding compensation,' either in the form of cash, check, free tickets, or vouchers for future flights. The amount of compensation varies depending on length of delay and amount spent on original ticket."
If you're still looking for more nuanced answers, there's a whole TED Talk on the topic of overbooking:
And now you know.
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