Bumped flyers, tense staffers — but not all brands overbook

Photo Montage of Jetliner and Rental Car Counter

Southwest Airlines no longer overbooks when selling tickets for flights, although overbooking is an acceptable practice with many other airlines, hotel chains, and rental car companies. Photo illustration and story by K. Patricia Bouweraerts

Updated on May 8, 2019

A reservation isn’t entirely a reservation if you arrive too late at the gate for a full flight or during a special event, and the travel industry staffer on duty has the difficult task of announcing that there is an overbooking situation.

When travelers are bumped from a flight, hotel stay, or rental car booking, both customers and staffers are impacted.

“I had to work with passengers who were offloaded from the flight because of the overbooking,” wrote Lyubov Wolff on Quora.com. “Can’t say it scarred me for life, but with the amount of curses on me, I should have self-ignited with their fury years ago and my remnants would fit in a matchbox.”

Wolff expressed support for banning overbooking altogether.

Charles Pullen, who specializes in public relations and communications consulting, crisis planning and management, also views overbooking as counterproductive. In his previous hospitality industry experience, he was aware that premium or high stakes casino players received preference for rooms at Nevada casino hotels.

“Is it good?” Pullen asked. “It might be for the chance the property wins at the (gaming) table, but the long-term effect diminishes the value of the brand of service a property is committed to providing. Today, I can’t see where overbooking would be a wise choice with so many more options for guests and players.”

In fact, Southwest Airlines Co. has stopped the practice of overselling tickets.

“It is accurate to say that we no longer overbook when selling flights,” wrote a Southwest Airlines spokesperson in an email.

The company representative explained that the carrier no longer needs to overbook.

“Our forecasting and planning functions have come (to) a point where we know who’s showing up,” the spokesperson added. “It costs us more to inconvenience someone and risk losing a customer than the potential revenue gained by overbooking (times 130-plus million customers per year). Flights can end up overbooked for operational reasons (moving around a few customers who were disrupted by weather, for example — when we might ask for three–four volunteers, for example) so that our customers can get to their destinations — this does not happen often and is still reported in Department of Transportation metrics each quarter,” the SWA spokesperson wrote.

Sales overbooking is an acceptable practice for most other carriers and at many hotel chains. Travelers and customer service representatives have spoken out about the practice.

What caused overbooking in the first place?

Overbooking began as a way to recoup revenue when customers’ plans changed and they did not show up for reserved seats, rooms, or cars. Further, no-shows sometimes happened through no fault of the guest, as a connecting flight arrived too late, or weather conditions forced the closure of an arterial route or highway.

Many tickets and hotel reservations carry no cancellation penalty, thus causing the loss of revenue.

“Overbooking is a legal practice,” wrote Jannet Vreeland and Jeff Wong in the Reno Gazette-Journal. “When an overbooking occurs, the U.S. Department of Transportation requires the airline to ask passengers to voluntarily surrender seats in exchange for compensation, which the airlines determine. Passengers involuntarily denied boarding (bumped) are, with few exceptions, entitled to compensation.”

The minimum compensation level required by the DOT corresponds to how late the rescheduled flight arrives in comparison to the original planned arrival time.

The DOT posts minimum compensation for bumped passengers from domestic flights:

  • Up to one hour delayed arrival; no compensation is required
  • One–two hours delayed arrival; 200 percent of the one-way fare (maximum $675)
  • More than two hours delayed arrival; 400 percent of one-way fare (maximum $1,350)

Car rental companies also oversell.

“Just like airlines and hotels, car rental companies routinely overbook because there are so many no-shows,” wrote Michael Timmerman on Clark.com.

He added that the practice may even increase now that there is more competition from Uber and Lyft, and therefore reduced demand for rental cars. Companies are keeping vehicles longer and buying fewer new ones. There is also an overall surplus of used cars, resulting in less profit when fleets sell their older vehicles.

Stephanie Zimmermann, in an article on ABCNews.go.com, wrote that rental car companies are not subject to federal consumer protection guidelines in the same way that airlines are mandated to provide specified compensation for involuntary bumping.

“Be aware that overbooking may occur at busy travel periods or if there’s a high-profile event in town,” she wrote. “It may be more likely to occur with specialty vehicle rentals.”

Overbooked Stamps on Suitcases Illustration

“Overbooking of a hotel is quite common and a good hotel can get overbooked 20–30 days a year,” wrote Prashant Arabhavi, Quora contributor who lists 20 years of hotel industry experience. Photo and illustration by P. Bouweraerts, including vectors by vecteezy.com.

Customer service staffers are the bearers of bad news

Many employees who interact directly with customers find overbooking stressful.

“Passengers are throwing fits of rage, try to threaten and attack airline employees, and become verbally abusive when they hear that they are not taking the flight they paid for,” Wolff wrote. “I am honestly tired of people attacking check-in agents and airlines representatives who didn’t create this system but deal with the aftermath.”

Rudd Davis, who is founder and CEO of Blackbird Air, a private air travel company, wrote that one of the underlying reasons for tense situations — including the removal in 2017 of a passenger from United Airlines flight 3411 — involves under-supported customer service staff.

“Full flights leave no room for error, so when a crew of four who absolutely must get to Louisville to cover another flight shows up, the customer service agents are put into a very unenviable position,” Davis wrote. “On one hand, the gate agents knew that they had to move that crew to Louisville — it is likely that they received a frantic phone call after the flight was boarded that told them that they didn’t have any options in that respect. On the other hand, the gate agents had a full flight of people who rightly expected to fly. Without moving some passengers off the plane, other flights and a hundred or more passengers might have been impacted. …I would not have wanted to be in the shoes of the folks working United 3411’s gate that night.”

The offers of tempting travel vouchers to incentivize volunteers can miss the actual needs of customers. Those who miss a business presentation, lose a day of vacation, or have to reschedule patient appointments may not care about compensation for delayed arrival.

The story of a rough start to one family’s vacation was shared by Lyn Hogan with The New York Times.

“After we were all in our seats, flight personnel came on board and told us we had to leave — no explanation except that the seats were double-booked,” she said. “Given that our condo and lift passes were not refundable, we said ‘no.’ I had an argument with the flight personnel asking ‘why us,’ explaining our situation. They insisted we had to leave. …We missed a full day of prepaid skiing.”

Customer service employees are working with upset passengers and guests who are tired and tested to their limits.

Val Vilott responded to a request for reader stories on ThePointsGuy.com. She was bumped from an oversold New York hotel after a long flight from Los Angeles, arriving at the Club Quarters (CQ) about 1 a.m.

“I first tried the kind-but-disappointed customer service voice which did not net anything,” Vilott wrote. “The only staffer on site was the front desk lady and she was already in the middle of calling around to other hotels — she had a list in front of her of every hotel in Manhattan (it’s a long list) and was about halfway down it with every line marked as ‘no vacancy.’ So then I tried my ‘infuriated and on the verge of a breakdown’ voice and said some things I am not entirely proud of. I stood there seething for about 20 minutes, searching on my phone for rooms, when finally she got through to a hotel and arranged for a ‘walk’ (re-booking to an alternate hotel).”

After apologizing to Vilott, the Club Quarters’ receptionist also helped her hail a taxi, and re-booked her into a junior suite at the Plaza New York, paid for by CQ. Even so, Vilott indicated she would prefer not to stay at a CQ again.

Pullen confirmed that negative experiences may turn off customers permanently.

“For a non-gaming property, overbooking seems inefficient to maintain brand loyalty and repeat stays,” he said.

Additional reader stories were shared as part of ThePointsGuy.com article by Emily McNutt. They included guests who were “walked” to different properties from Embassy Suites, Hilton, Holiday Inn Express, and other chains. McNutt added that guests are less likely to be bumped if they arrive early, are members of the hotel’s reward program, and book directly through the chain’s website rather than with an online travel agency (OTA) such as Expedia or HotelTonight.

Alternatively, some travel pros say overbooking is practical

William Underwood also responded to the Quora.com question, “Do you think overbooking flights should be illegal?” Underwood posts that he worked for United Airlines from 1959–2001.

“An airline is not like a grocery store where an item sits on the shelf until it is sold,” he wrote. “If a flight departs with an empty seat, that seat is gone forever and the revenue it generates is gone forever. …It actually is a good thing because the more seats you fill up on an airplane, the less each seat costs.”

Airline pilot Sebastian Lender agrees. He wrote on Quora.com that overbooking is reasonable.

“99 out of 100 flights we have people who don’t show up,” he wrote. “When a pilot says he is finishing off the paperwork before departure, some of that is caused by having to recalculate the weight and center of gravity with an adjusted passenger and baggage distribution from that expected due to no-shows.”

Thomas Zerbarini, also a pilot, agreed that overbooking reduces lost revenue and decreases the cost of tickets.

“If there was regulation to prevent overbooking, the airlines would be forced to recover their loss and inability to sell all the seats,” he wrote. “Most probably resulting in higher ticket prices and more restrictions on cheaper fares. It would also reduce travel and commerce because the higher fares would reduce demand. We deregulated the airlines in 1978 to create competition and lower fares. If we regulate again, it’s almost a guarantee to less flights and higher fares.”

Strategies to manage overbooking

Another Quora.com poster, Edward Conway, has learned during his 16 years of working in customer service that many difficult situations can be turned around.

His recommendations include the following:

  • Instead of paying customers, bump employee or company executive stays because staff members understand overbooking
  • Admit the mistake, apologize, and become the guest’s ally to reach a better resolution
  • The sooner you can let a customer know, the better, such as before boarding a plane
  • Do not use forceful measures in these times of mobile video and social media
  • Encourage meaningful action in your company to prevent similar situations in the future

Some hotel chains act proactively by arranging the “walk” of an overbooked guest to another hotel earlier in the evening, phoning him or her with the new information while en route, so the traveler can save time and arrive at the alternate destination directly.

Hospitality professionals may also seek to spread awareness and information that helps customers and guests understand more about double-booking and how to lessen the likelihood of being bumped.

For example, when hotel guests make reservations through an OTA such as Hotels.com, Expedia, or Priceline, changes or refunds typically need to be requested by the customer calling the OTA, as opposed to being completed at the hotel’s front desk. In contrast, travelers who book on a hotel’s own reservation site may find it easier to cancel or change their reservation.

Conway recommends that customer service staffers are prepared for distressed guests, but they also can explore training and practice empathy to better manage these difficult situations.

“I work in hotels where we frequently overbook and have to bump guests,” he wrote. “I have had instances where I have had to call the police to have a bumped guest removed. I’ve also had instances where a guest has been so impressed by the caring way their situation was handled that they called back the next morning to thank my boss and commend my customer service.”

So, handling overbooking may well be a journey for both customer and staffer — whether or not the earlier flight is now boarding.


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