Delta Flight Left The Gate With More Passengers Than Seats

Early this morning Delta flight 1732 from Charleston, South Carolina to Atlanta pushed back from the gate – with more passengers on board than seats. The Boeing 737-900 has 180 passenger seats, but there were 182 passengers on board.

The aircraft returned to the gate quickly to offload the extra passengers, but this is uncommon enough I tried to find out how this happened and why the aircraft was moving back from the gate without everyone on board being seated.

This passenger on board shared that the aircraft pushed back – and then two passengers walked to the front of the aircraft. A “flight attendant came over the PA and mentioned two passengers onboard didn’t have seats and we’d need to go back to the gate to let them off,” he explained.

The plane wasn’t yet on an active taxiway, so it was a quick return. The two extra passengers deplaned, and the flight still managed to operate on time.

According to Delta Airlines spokesperson Kate Modolo,

Delta flight 1732 from CHS to ATL this morning deplaned two employee stand-by passengers who did not have appropriate seat assignments. Our commitment to the safety of our customers and crew remains our No. 1 priority.

Apparently prior to closing the boarding door there were two empty seats that were assigned to non-revenue standby passengers, although the passengers originally assigned to those seats were actually on the aircraft. I often see, for instance, passengers using the lavatory right when they board and before taking their seats.

Clearly the last-minute employee standby passengers figured out for themselves that they lacked seats, and according to one of the passengers on board identified that there was a problem. This all happened almost right away as the aircraft pushed off.

The incident calls to mind two contrasting times recently where planes actually did take off with more passengers than seats.

Pakistan International Airlines boarded 416 passengers on a Boeing 777 with 409 seats for the 1700 mile flight from Karachi to Medina. The extra passengers stood in the aisle. It turns out the captain says he only learned about the situation after takeoff, and the airline didn’t want to dump fuel to land back in Pakistan so they just continued on.

And two years ago a TUI flight operated from Mahon, Spain to Birmingham, UK with seat assignments that didn’t exist for three passengers due to an aircraft swap. The plane carried fewer passengers than planned. Nobody was denied boarding. Instead the family sat on the floor throughout the flight, while using jumpseats for takeoff and landing.

Neither of those things happened here. Delta caught the mistake and returned to the gate. Although I wonder what would have happened if the two seats did appear open because passengers were in the lavatory — and they spent an especially long time there not coming out until the plane was airborne?

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 handled this pretty quick. It’s just odd that they saw two open seats and didn’t check to see if someone boarded with those assignments.

  2. You can nearly bet that the two nonrevs had seated themselves in rear jump seats when either the lead or the captain decided this wouldn’t be allowed.

    This is the only plausible explanation in my mind how the door was closed and the plane pushed from the gate

  3. So the two pax who were booted off – do they get comp for IDB? Once you get a BP and your are on board, they owe you IDB, right? Happened to me on JetBlue and they kicked me off and told me to pound sand on comp.

  4. As a non-rev for a long time, I know I fly standby,and though I have very high seniority, am disciplined and courteous to paying customers, as I wait for my name to be called to board. Why did two non-revs board prior to being cleared? I think a reprimand for them is fair. I was bumped with my grandson all day once. Smile and bear it. It’s understood when flying non-rev. It’s still a privilege, and we follow rules.

  5. One wonders if the incident was carried out by passenger plan or by Delta ticketing error. Either cause is disturbingly bad business.
    Flying anywhere these days is nuts. When the airline is a poor manager, passengers lose.
    Anti vaxxers, anti maskers, and dysfunctional idiots need to be seated in a place more appropriate to their behavior and their flaunting of requirements to board. That would be cargo. We could put real traveling Animalia (dogs, cats, snakes and such) in the seats. Less trouble than Hominids with social problems, drugs or alcohol.
    I see more and more bad behavior on airlines. I really appreciated the novel solution one crew used…duct tape the out-of-control passenger to her seat. It terminated a life-threatening problem for passengers and crew at 30-some thousand feet, and did not hurt the offending passenger.
    My serious concern is the airline’s desk jockey who objected to the crew’s solution. He needs to travel in the cargo area with the dysfunctional passenger. Each individual would, of course, be secured in a large animal cage with a roll of toilet paper.
    The increasingly unpleasant flying conditions, unpleasant (and alcoholic) passengers, and garbage food keep me considering driving to Alaska. A pleasant drive on the AlCan Hwy with my dog to visit my family in Alaska.
    Thank you. M. Webb

  6. I heard this was common with the Soviet-era Aeroflot. Their solution to oversold flights was to not bother accommodating the excess passengers and let them board. The crews didn’t care. The choice “seat” for the seatless was the lavatory. Frequently the lavatory squatters (no pun intended) would lock the door for the entire flight!

  7. The gate agent is responsible for the flight load being accurate. They have the numbers on their screen at the gate desk. That should NEVER happen. Having been a gate agent for a number of years, I was ALWAYS cognizant of how many seats were open/not open. Clearly Delta should either retrain this agent, after further review, or let them go!

  8. My guess is the two ticketed pax boarding passes never got scanned properly. Making it look like there were two open seats when there was not.

  9. What happened to a flight I was on several years ago was 100% full plane. Al) seated, no cross-check announced yet; the captain announced that the aircraft was overweight due to cargo, and they needed 3 volunteers to deplane! 3 did quickly, and after a few minutes we were on our way.

  10. Zona, do you honestly think that the 2 non revs just waltzed on the plane with no boarding pass or the agents not noticing that they were non revs without a seat? This an agent glitch, no blame on them.

  11. I believe Delta did a great job to identify the mistake. It wasn’t ok in the scenario where the family sat down on the floor through the entire log flight. Good job Delta.

  12. As a F/A who use to board paxs for the flt two things happen. It could be a family or group and a seat didn’t register in the group.or the scan didn’t register it properly or fully. The agents should see a person is missing in the group and check to see that they are on. But close out is the busiest and if you rely on machines without a quick check it gets missed .rarely but it happens.

  13. In the 1970s, my dad flew for Braniff, so we flew as non-revs. My mom, brother, & I were the only non-revs on a flight when it was discovered, while taxiing, that there was 1 revenue passenger without a seat. Someone had miscounted. The plane returned to the gate, & because we were the only non-revs, we had to get off the plane. My mom recalls lots of stares from other passengers, wondering what did this lady with her 3-year-old and 7-year-old DO to get booted off the flight??

  14. As an airline employees, This is pretty much normal.
    Some seats occupied employees (transferred pilots etc.) who should should use jump seat, but some reason to use normal seat

  15. Something is not right and i think it’s got soemthing to do with paying $30 extra to choose a seat early online or a gate agent will assign you a seat at the airport and a double booking happened at the same time. Stand by passengers are the last to board and gate agents can easily see how many people are in the plane. It doesn’t matter who went to bathroom. Delta and others need to stop making money out of everything and anything possible or these kind of odd mistakes will keep happening.

  16. Pilot Bob nailed it. What a stupid thing to even bring up. Incredible some of the remarks from obviously clueless Monday morning airline operational critics. Thanks to automated boarding control programs this problem is a very rare occurrence and certainly not worth of an “investigation.”?

  17. Delta sometimes boards non-revs and managers to sit on jumpseat. Which is probably what happened without the captain’s okay. Because the captain ultimately decides who can jumpseat on the flight deck. Nowadays, most airlines will only allow flight deck jumpseats to be filled by flight crew members.. These two individuals were boarded and then seated upfront, then the captain start asking them what they do for Delta. They answered and the captain decides that they didn’t want them on the flight deck. Then the aircraft went back to the gate. It happens, not frequently, but it does happen.

  18. I’ve flown Aeroflot in the USSR several times. One flight we had no buckles on our seat belts. On another the flight attendant was passing around mineral water only after I returned the cup and they poured more water for the next passenger in the same cup did I realize we were all sharing the SAME cup. On my last flight from Yerevan to Moscow on one of their jumbo jets there were about 25 people standing the whole flight. I heard there were several people riding with the luggage in the hold. It was a stormy night and there were no airsick bags available. People were throwing up everywhere and anywhere. The whole plane smelled of puke. After landing we had to walk to the terminal about 1/4 mile in a snow storm with our luggage. And we had to cross an active taxi ramp. I never complain about flying issues in the USA.

  19. Just be aware that any airline operated in the United States has protocols. If there was someone in the lavatory a flight attendant would know about it before take off if they are doing their job correctly.

  20. I am a 51yr+ flight attendant with a major US carrier. I never worked as an agent. Announcements are usually made asking that each passenger have their boarding pass in their hand as they proceed to the boarding door. All-too-often people do not listen or care. When a family or group of 5,6,7+ people approach the boarding door and one person has all the boarding passes it creates a bottleneck. Add to that small children running amok, it can often lead to boarding passes being overlooked or not presentedto the agent.. Following instructions could simplify the process, save time and hopefully eliminate the need to return to the gate.

  21. Not an uncommon situation in the early days of SWA, especially when it was strictly intrastate short haul. 112 seats on a B737-200 and one Pax (#113) doing 360’s in the aisle. “Way back then” it was not required to have everyone seated prior to pushback. As there was alway pretty much an empty FA jump seat (3 required but 4 on 737) it was usually offered and accepted by
    Pax #113. This worked better than returning to gate because by this time the aircraft was ready for takeoff (the 10 minute turn was standard). It worked well until FAA decided that Emergency Evacuation had not been demonstrated for 113 passengers .
    BTW, FAA POI in DFW decided that having passengers standing while pushing back was unsafe . . . Regardless that ALL other modes of public transportation allow standing at significantly higher speeds than those encountered on push back. Bureaucrats keeping us “safe”.

  22. Somebody needs to put a muzzle and leash on marthalynne webb. M webb should be made aware that if it needs a mask to function on Earth, then it’s the one with the defect.

  23. Really hurting for material? Or sadly trying to be relevant? Obviously you don’t understand non-rev travel.

    McDonalds is hiring

  24. @mark chewning: wow. That sounds really awful! Yep, you experience makes a “spinner” story kinda silly.

    Spinners are what crew members call last minute boarders looking for seats ..

  25. Actually happened to us on our honeymoon! We were pulled off…. 2 people in the lav and the agents thought the seats were empty…

  26. JohnB, I can GUARANTEE that no one sits in a flight deck jumpseat that doesn’t have the pilot’s knowledge ahead of time about why they are there. There are laws that govern who can be in a jumpseat. The computer won’t even allow the agents to assign it to someone that doesn’t qualify. The pilot will check their ID and verify credentials ahead of time. NO ONE sits in a flight deck jumpseat without the captain’s okay.

    Secondly, it says in the article that two seats were empty seats assigned to nonrevs that actually belonged to revenue passengers. Pretty sure those revenue passengers weren’t in the cockpit either.

    Yes it should have been noticed before they left the gate, but regardless of that, weird things happen all the time. I’ve seen someone board a flight with a valid ticket, only to have the count be off at the end because the computer somehow deleted her reservation after she boarded. I’ve seen other bizarre things too. That’s why there are checks and balances in place. Yes it should have been noticed before they left the gate, but it was noticed and addressed.

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