American Airlines Has Started Contacting Passengers in Advance About Overbooked Flights

I’m tempted to say that since the David Dao passenger dragging incident on United last year, US airlines have gone to great lengths to address involuntary denied boardings. They’ve certainly increased the amount of compensation they’re willing to offer to passengers in exchange for their voluntarily giving up their seats.

At the same time attributing this entirely to the United fiasco isn’t entirely fair because involuntary denied boardings were already rare and already on the decline, a trend that’s been underway for forty years. In fact in the 1976 Supreme Court case Nader v. Allegheny Airlines the Court wrote that involuntary denied boardings were so rare many passengers reasonably might not know this was a thing.

There were about 150,000 involuntary denied boardings per year prior to deregulation, and that number was down to about 46,000 prior to David Dao.

American Airlines has a new program to reduce involuntary denied boardings, and to deal with overbooking prior to the airport. They’re hardly alone in doing this, but apparently yesterday they began a pilot project contacting passengers on overbooked flights in advance. (HT: @xJonNYC)

  • Passengers are contacted by email and text offering rebooking, and a special phone number to call.
  • The test phase will broaden out to more passengers on more routes
  • And they’ll ultimately offer self-serve rebooking as an option.

Here’s the detail:

What I don’t like in this document is that it suggests customers will be reassured their existing itineraries will still be honored if they actually ask. I can certainly see the ‘87% of passengers’ American says fly at most once a year not understanding this and not explicitly asking, agreeing to be moved to a less desirable itinerary thinking they have no choice.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Delta’s been doing this for a while as well. I was offered an alternate itinerary over voicemail and then called back with a preferred itinerary and was given that.

  2. Is there any compensation, or is this positioned as a chance for pax to change flights free of charge?

  3. I’m not sure if this is part of American’s strategy or just coincidence, but between 2013-2017, out of maybe 100 or so AA flight segments, I had never been on one soliciting volunteers. In 2018, 5 out of my 25 flight segments have solicited volunteers (only two times were volunteers actually necessary).

  4. It could be a win-win situation. What if you, as a passenger wanted to leave earlier or later? This is an opportunity to do so with some advance notice without any change fee.

  5. Novel idea – How about selling the exact numbers of seats on the plane so that no soliciting is required at all? Sure you are going to have the occasional empty (no-show) seat on a flight, but isn’t that easier to deal with than upset customers with long memories? Or do I just not fully understand the situation?

  6. @Jeff – counterintuitively airlines that do this are among those with the highest rates of involuntary denied boardings (see for instance jetblue). this isn’t something that only happens because of oversales. you’ve also got aircraft swaps (smaller plane with fewer seats). and dropping oversales would drive up costs, there are some routes and times where no shows are quite common.

  7. Not sure this is entirely new. Last July I had two first class award tickets booked on AA from LAX to OGG. About a week before departure I got an email/call asking if we would move to an earlier flight on the same day, in exchange for 2 $800 travel vouchers (one for each of us). I was a PLT at the time. No brainer, we got in a few hours earlier and effectively got free flights. I don’t know, but imagine they had oversold 2 seats in that cabin for way more than $800 each.

  8. I sort of doubt they overbook first class seats very often. Because you were using award tickets instead of revenue tickets, I imagine they contacted you first. Usually when they have to involuntarily remove people from a flight (when there are no volunteers), the people paying the least (like airline personnel, travel agents, or really low fares) have to leave first.

    They probably had some mucky mucks that needed to get on the flights at the last minute and contacted you to relinquish your seats to get them on the flight.

    Sounds like you made out quite well. 🙂

  9. I worked in the AA reservations office in the Chrysler Building in the 60’s, and our unit did this all the time. There were employees called ‘revenue coordinators’, very senior and experienced, who would determine that a flight needed to be ‘shaken down’, and support services employees would call passengers and ask them if they were planning to travel on the flight. This was before non-refundable tickets, so no-shows were very common.

    Interesting that this is coming forth as a new idea.

  10. This is just an attempt by AA to get out of a situation they created by over-selling the flight without paying compensation to a customer that would be inconvenienced. As noted, a few might be happy with a different flight, but AA does NOTHING that is in the interests of the customer, especially if AA can save some money( compensation) in the process

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