It’s hardly news that as airlines continue to shrink seat sizes to jam more people onto fewer planes, they’re hearing louder bleats from those who refuse to be sheep about the discomfort and extra charges for services they receive only grudgingly.
But as was forcefully highlighted by the bloody eviction of a doctor from a United Airlines plane in Chicago, it’s a growing trend for airlines to routinely overbook flights and deny boarding to paying passengers when they find they have more ticket holders than seats.
In the egregious case that went viral, social media has come alive with hashtags like #NewUnitedAirlinesMottos to propose slogans such as ”We Put The Hospital In Hospitality” and “We’ll drag you all over the world.” Meanwhile, the airline’s CEO is standing by his employees despite the fact that everyone involved showed atrocious judgment.
This incident comes at a time when Canada’s transport minister Marc Garneau is set to introduce an air passenger bill of rights. As part of it, he promises “When a passenger books a flight and is then told that it’s overbooked, they have certain rights.”
It’s about time.
In more than three decades of frequent flying, I’d never been bumped from a flight. But over the course of 12 months, in 2014 and 2015 it happened to me and my wife three times. Each time we’d had paid what we thought were full fare tickets well in advance.
Each time, we arrived at the airport for check-in at least two hours before boarding time. But each time I was told I was already too late: we were being put on standby and couldn’t board because the flight was over-sold and all the seats had already been given out.
Once may be a mistake, twice might be bad luck, but three times is proof to me that there’s a harsh new reality that requires a coping strategy.
In the old days being left behind might have meant waiting a bit and being offered an upgrade on a later flight for the inconvenience, the new reality is that as airlines cut service there may not be another flight until the next day—and there’s not likely to be compensation or even an apology.
Rather than offer cash compensation or a free ticket for the inconvenience they caused, the airlines we dealt with tried to persuade me that it was somehow my fault. Gee, you’re supposed to know that you’re playing musical seats and you lost. We don’t think you’re entitled to anything other than a wish for “better luck next time.”
If I’d wanted to play games, I’d have stayed in kindergarten. But I’m an adult who really needs to get to my destination on time to catch a cruise. And I’ve managed to stand my ground and get airlines to ask for volunteers to give up their seats so passengers who have urgent business can board. But it hasn’t been easy.
In the past, airlines could generally find enough volunteers with leeway in their schedules to give up their seat in exchange for cash or a future flight. But with airlines shrinking their schedules and with so many flights being oversold, people are reluctant to take the chance of there being space later. In one case where I didn’t get a seat, a gate agent confided in me that I wasn’t alone: the flight had been oversold by 18 seats.
When not enough “volunteers” came forward for the offer of a $200 voucher good for a future flight, passengers got bumped according to how much they paid for their tickets. The lowest priority were those flying on frequent flyer points, which seems an ideal to anger your regular customers.
So what to do? Here’s what I’ve learned from my experiences that I’m hoping will help me and others from experiencing the dreaded bump on future trips:
Insist on a seat assignment
It should be a given that when your regular travel agent books a flight, that should get you a confirmed seat. But increasingly, airlines are asking a fee for a seat assignment or not giving assignments in advance for promotional fare tickets. And I’ve also booked through cruise lines or through on-line booking sites which are not hooked directly to the airlines’ reservations system. These bring a ticket that says “check in required for seat assignment.” That also often happens in a ticket you redeem for frequent flyer points, which airlines consider low priority.
That means that the reservation is blocked for on-line check in and you and have to wait until you get to the airport, which can put you last in the queue for still available seats
Avoid code shares
Problems arise when different affiliated airlines all take bookings for a single flight that is “code shared.” Their computers may not be interactive enough to block the same seat being sold by both airlines. If you are bumped by the airline that’s flying the plane, your only recourse may be with the airline you bought the ticket from, which may not even have a representative on duty.
Check in on-line and print a boarding pass
Even when you do have a seat number listed on your e-ticket, you could still get to the gate and be told that it wasn’t confirmed. Most airlines now let you check in and print a boarding pass 24 hours before the flight. It’s hard for them to argue when you’ve got a boarding pass in hand.
Arrive early and know how to pull rank
Build in time to get to the gate early to reduce the odds that you can get into an empty seat before the music stops.
Use whatever clout you may have. Do you have frequent flyer status? Find a phone number that will help you reach a live agent on the customer service desk (which may be on the other side of the security checkpoint). At the gate, insist on speaking with a manager rather than the desk person who has no authority to make exceptions.
Get it all in writing
Refuse to take verbal assurances: ‘We have you booked on a later flight…’ means nothing if they can’t provide you with a boarding pass and one for any connecting flights you have. That means you’re on standby on those flights too and you may not actually be able to get on those flights either.
Once you’re no longer on your original itinerary; you become a problem for everyone you deal with. I’ve found gate personnel would rather deflect responsibility and give vague assurances that someone else will help you just to get you off their radar. Get the names and cell numbers of the people you deal with and the assurances they gave you. Otherwise, the agent you deal with next will say “Oh, I don’t know who told you that. There’s nothing I can do.”
How about the baggage?
Ask this question forcefully, because once a connection has to be changed, there’s a much higher chance the bag may not arrive with you. If you are put on standby, your bags will be stored in an area near the gate and only released when you are given a seat assignment. Make sure that they identify all your checked bags and that someone is actually taking them to the plane that you finally get to board. .
If you do get the last minute go ahead to board, the plane will be all loaded and ready to go and there’s a risk that the airline will want to push back on time rather than re-open the cargo hold for a couple of last-minute pieces.
Demand your rights
Squeaky wheels do get greased.
For more ways to avoid flight foul-ups see God Only Knows When We’ll Depart
– By Wallace Immen