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entry Jan 10 2007, 11:15 AM
3 days before the Christmas, I was very unpleasantly surprised, when I was denied boarding a Continental Airline flight for China, even though I did all the “right” things, I booked the ticket one month in advance, called the airline twice within two weeks before the flight to confirm the seat, and arrived at the airport early. This is called “Involuntary Bumping”. It is caused by an airline overbooking, or selling more tickets than there are seats on a plane. Having just been through this horridness experience, I believe that this standard practice should be banned all together.

Overbooking is a standard practice and perfectly legal. Many airlines regularly overbook busy routes by as much as 200 percent. Bumping occurs when there are more passengers with confirmed reservations who show up for a flight than there are seats on the plane. If agents are unable to find enough volunteers, they will begin to involuntarily bump a few unlucky passengers, based on a variety of factors, like the time the passenger arrived for the flight, the amount they paid for their ticket, and their frequent flyer status.

Every year, over 1 million passengers are bumped by the nation's ten largest airlines, 50,000 of them are bumped involuntarily, like me.

On the surface, most airlines overbook their scheduled flights to a certain extent in order to compensate for "no-shows" or empty seats, but in fact airlines sell their seats to highest bidders to maximize their profit, they are taking advantage of an outdated law enacted about 30 years ago. By law, all bumped passengers are entitled to some form of compensation, but the law sets the compensation limit to $400, adjusting for inflation, $400 in 1978 is worth approximately $1200 in today’s dollars, or, conversely, $400 today was worth approximately $130 in 1978.

The dirty secrete of overbooking is that airlines typically sell the least expensive tickets first and the most expensive tickets last. Overbooking does not occur because airlines have sold more discount tickets than intended months in advance; those are limited in supply and almost always sell out. Flights become overbooked when more people buy high-price tickets than expected in the days immediately prior to the flight. Airlines are not concerned only with filling planes, but also with earning revenue. Current overbooking regulations give airlines a strong incentive to increase their percentage of high-revenue seats by reselling their discount seats. Just as every empty seat is lost revenue, so is every seat sold at a discount. Giving a $200 or $400 travel voucher is often less expensive for the airline than turning down a last-minute sale to a business traveler paying a much higher price.

Let’s see what I get for $400 compensation, first I had to stand in lines after lines for about 5 hours to get my alternative flight arranged and get the $400, and I did not have any time to have any food or break for about 12 hours straight. Instead of direct flight to Beijing from the east cost (Newark Airport), I had to fly to the west cost (Los Angeles) first, boarded a different airline flight to Beijing, and arrived at Beijing a day later. I missed the original connecting flight in Beijing and had to waste another 6 hours in Beijing for a different connecting flight, a total delay of about 24 hours. Because of all these stress, I felt ill on my arrival, I was sick for about one week out of my two weeks vocation.

When I checked in for my first flight for Newark at 7am in the Washington Dulles Airport, the airline refused to issue me boarding pass for the 12pm connecting flight from Newark to Beijing, and obviously it already knew at least 5 hour before hand that I will be bumped. Instead of informing me and offering me the alternative travel plan early, they mislead me and led me stranded in the Newark for about 8 hours. This makes me really mad, because it will be much easier for me to take the alternative flight to Los Angeles from Dulles than from Newark.

At about same time I was bumped, thousands of travelers in Brazil were also suffering the same fate as I over Christmas because of overbooking. Brazil prohibited national airlines from overbooking flights over the New Year holiday.

Overbooking allows airlines to take your money, then deny you what you bought. Let’s look at this analogy, if Best Buy took $10,000 from me for a 62 inch branded Plasma TV, but instead they forced on me a 50 inch (connecting flight verses direct flight) different branded (different airline) Plasma TV plus $1000 compensation, on top of that I had to come back again to pick up that 50 inch TV (my 24 hours delay). This is, in fact, exactly what airline did in my case. This is outright fraud, corporate profits are an important thing, but not at expense of its customers. The first would be to stop denying that it's fraud to overbook. Compensation needs to be made to make this experience tenable, or indeed ban it altogether.

JetBlue has proved that airline can do better without overbooking. Rejecting a practice most airlines have used for years to help fill planes, JetBlue doesn't overbook its flights. Yet it flies with a smaller percentage of empty seats than its competitors — just 20% in September, 13 percentage points better than all of its bigger competitors. JetBlue's policy has drawn little notice, but it is an example of fresh thinking that has helped make the 3-year-old carrier one of the most successful start-up airlines in a generation. "People want to go to the airport knowing they have a seat," says CEO David Neeleman. "We also don't want our people to get beat up when customers find out the plane is overbooked. ... We have lots of stress in this industry, and trying to figure out who to bump only adds to the stress of these jobs." The airline made all tickets non-refundable. Passengers have to call the airline in advance if they are going to miss their flight. If they do, they can rebook a flight on another day for a $25 charge. JetBlue officials believe passengers holding non-refundable tickets are more likely to show up for their flights to avoid rebooking fees. Since JetBlue’s last-minute price is not a large multiple of its average cost, it does not make economic sense for the airline to overbook. This is because the profit made on a last-minute JetBlue ticket is unlikely to cover the cost of damages owed to the passenger that JetBlue will be forced to bump to accommodate the new ticket sale.

Has anyone had same kind of experience? You can share your experience here. Let’s work together to ban this practice. Say “NO” to airline overbooking.

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