Read My Op-Ed in Monday’s USA Today on Airline Overbooking

Monday’s USA Today will feature a staff editorial arguing that the government should ‘ban bumping’ and that “airlines should be required to offer as much money as necessary to deal with overbooked flights.”

They’re featuring my op-ed offering the opposing view, that overbooking is how airlines make sure seats go out full, that without it prices would be higher, and using current technology a neverending auction system would cause flights to miss takeoff windows and flight crew to run out of duty hours. In other words, more flights would delay and cancel, too.

If airlines had to keep increasing their offer until that involuntary number were zero, it would raise costs. Before endorsing this, realize it redistributes income away from the poorest air travelers to those who can still afford to fly.

On the other hand, if an airline did try to run such an auction at the gate it would also take precious time and delay flights. In bad weather, planes might miss their window to take off. Flight crew might start to run out of hours they’re allowed to work late in the day. More flights would cancel.

As they say, read the whole thing, I only had 350 words.

And thanks to Eric Feigl-Ding, founder of (a nonprofit public alert network for toxic drinking water that you should know about), for the heads up that they were looking for the contribution.

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. As long as every potential seat is occupied on a flight, fares will be the lowest they can be. It might mean waiting in the airport for the next flight due to an overbooking, a missed connection, or getting stuck in traffic, or stuck in the TSA line, or whatever crops up to force you to lose your seat, but as long as every potential seat is sold or occupied, fares will be the lowest they can be.
    On the other hand, if your reserved seat goes empty because you missed your flight, and airlines were too afraid to overbook, then be prepared to pay more and wait longer for another seat. This is particularly complicated with group or family travel combined with bad weather. Somebody pays for empty seats, and that would be the customer.
    The airlines will end up colluding with government approval to make sure every seat is occupied which will both maximize revenue and to stifle low fare competition. They will just be less forceful about it, as well they should.

  2. If the involuntary denied boarding is truly rare, then increasing the amounts offered for volunteers would be negligible in the overall scheme of things. Let’s say that each of those 46,000 IDB victims could have got a seat if the airline offered $500 more in compensation. That’s $23 million. How many cents is that per passenger flown? If there are 600 million passengers flown, that’s an increase in cost of about 2.6 cents for each passenger. Not really a massive transfer of money from the poor to the rich, is it?

    And remember a couple of others things. 1) The compensation is usually in the form of vouchers that involve a lot of breakage. Do half the people getting vouchers actually end up using them? 2) And the vouchers will always be issued when flights are completely full, but often will be used on flights that aren’t. A voucher user frequently won’t be displacing a paying customer so that the true cost to the airline of “re-accommodating” him or her will be much less than the face value of the voucher. It looks to me like the elimination of involuntary denied boarding would actually be at a cost of about 1 cent per passenger flown. I’m personally willing to pay 1 cent to know I won’t be denied boarding involuntarily.

    I am not against overbooking in principle, but I am when it means involuntary denied boardings.

  3. Gary,

    Can you please tell us exactly by how.much the customers of JetBlue and Virgin America, who don’t overbook, are being hurt by these airline’s policies not to overbook?

    All I read is bla bla bla without a shred of evidence supporting any of your allegations. Since airlines who don’t overbook exist, you should use actual numbers, not arguments without any support.

    Am I paying $10 for flying JetBlue due to their no-overbooking policy? Or $0.01? You tell us.

  4. Gary – All businesses, from buses and trains to restaurants to theaters and concert halls, would like and do try to fill every seat. However, we don’t accept it as their natural right to overbook and then bump confirmed customers. The same should apply to airlines. So, I am with the staff editorial.

  5. I think there needs to better controls on over booking and the compensation levels need to be increased. If the airlines want to guarantee their flights go out full then they need to pay for that in the form of better compensation to customers who were inconvenienced by being bumped. They treat their customers like there time is worthless and they’re doing them a big favor by offering an $800 voucher in exchange for arriving 15-24 hours late. Hogwash! They need to put up or shut up!

  6. I’m obviously missing the nuances of your argument, Gary.

    You first point out how few IDBs apparently occur. You then favor maintaining an arbitrary government-mandated cap on payouts, because, among other reasons, auctions take too long.

    Have you ever actually attended a real auction – not one of those posh society benefit functions? Real auctions generally go quickly.

    Speaking of statistically rare events, today is a day I actually agree with a USA Today editorial.

    The airline oligopoly OTOH no doubt is already circulating your riposte with delight.

  7. Great that you got to provide an article to USA today, congrats. Here is a counter argument though: Perhaps people are willing to pay a little more money to not EVER be involuntarily denied boarding? I don’t know if you or the airline would be able to estimate the cost to the individual to change their plans. Perhaps customers value their time more and would be willing to pay more for it. After all, being denied boarding could mean: missing a connection, missing someone’s wedding or funeral, missing important work or a work conference, etc…. maybe you should ask around to paying customers. I personally would be willing to pay more to ensure not ever being denied boarding.

  8. @ Dave S. Excellent points. If the practice of Involuntary Denied Boarding is truly rare as the airlines claim, none of these wealth transfer/delay issues are material.

  9. In my view United’s/Republic’s problem was caused by gate people who were not very smart. that said I would take the $800 voucher in a heartbeat. Clearly, I’m in the minority as even my wife is often resistant to bumping. I think what might come out of this is the end of involuntary bumping. And it would not be the end of the world..

  10. If a company has to sell more then what their inventory is, to make a profit, they have a poor business model.

    If I don’t show up for a flight, they’re not giving me my money back. If every seat is sold, but seats are empty do to no shows, they have less operational cost. Over bookingredients is just them being greedy selling something that isn’t theirs.

    As far as being bumped; I bought by ticket in advance (they have my money for weeks). I checked in when I was supposed to. I showed up to the airport early. Went through security. And was at the gate when I was told. Piss poor planning on their part, does not constitute an emergency on mine. I made those plans for a reason. If they want my seat, they need to offer what I think it’s worth. If not, they can go ask somebody else.

  11. +1 @DaveS, @Fredd, @Teresa, @Chris

    I too cannot believe that I’m actually agreeing with USA Today.

  12. I would think they could change the online check-in procedure to allow you to designate whether you would be willing to give up your seat for an overbooked flight and for how much in compensation you would need for that to happen. That would speed things up considerably.

  13. I agree with you, Gary. It’s a shame the paper didn’t give you more space to explain.

  14. It is so easy to take the airline’s point of view and believe that an auction for oversold seats would slow things down excessively and raise pricing, but it’s easy to consider only because the airline is one operation with one single goal–get planes moved and make a profit. The consideration is quick and easy, with the solution equally quick and easy. The whole issue becomes much more difficult to consider, though, when you think about the myriad ways that overbooking and denied boarding can affect and harm millions of people in their own individual ways…a physician is late for work…a child misses her father’s funeral…a cruise ship is missed which will harm the passengers and crewmembers trying to reach it…an important business meeting is missed…and so on and so on. The answer to the problem that you choose is inherent in whether you care about the company more or the individuals more. Gary cares about the business, in a strong Republican argument. Many of us care much more about the individuals and the heartache and problems that denied boarding has caused and will cause. I think back to the many times that my life would have been in extreme difficulty if I was denied boarding as was the recent United passenger. For one example, my parents were killed in a car accident and I flew to take care of arrangements halfway across the country. In a pure Republican love of the company argument there is no room for deciding whose need is more important, so the company can just boot people off the plane. That is so unkind to fellow human beings that it just boggles the mind. A company that lives by the dollar should let others participate in the game too. If the airline overbooks, it should buy those seats back from those who can give them up for any price. Individuals fly for reasons, and many of them are good and time-conscious reasons. United’s recent debacle didn’t care anything about why their passengers had boarded that plane. Until someone can figure out a better system, an auction will usually prevent making those personal problems any worse.

  15. @Dan T. Nelson

    Republican? You mean the socialist argument that those airline employees need to get on the flight for the greater good? Politics can be left out of this…

  16. Ach, it is very tough to explicate everything in 350 words and you did what you could with limited space. I still however am struggling over this sentence: “Before endorsing this, realize it redistributes income away from the poorest air travelers to those who can still afford to fly.”

    Maybe I drank too much red wine at dinner tonight over here in Europa, but somehow despite repeatedly pondering your sentence I fail to see how this realization would change my view on anything. Granted the compensation in Europe for bumps / delays is exceedingly generous, and yet they somehow manage to make things work without the egregious, embarrassing, exacerbating, and exceptionally exquisitely evil situation we saw on Untied last week.

    As Dan T. Nelson succinctly wrote: “If the airline overbooks, it should buy those seats back from those who can give them up for any price.”

  17. I do not agree that this is any kind of wealth transfer. People who fly, on the whole, are far more financially secure than many Americans. Wealth transfer? I’m not getting the concept. As far as banning bumping, I think the opposing opinion is better. Make the airlines offer enough money up front that IDB doesn’t occur. The premise of airlines making this decision on their own, is great. Delta is already doing it. If the other airlines really want IDB to go down, the other 2, UA and AA would go the path of DL. But making excuses as a shill for the airlines is not why most read your blog.

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