Yesterday’s shitstorm caused by United Airlines’s beating up a passenger has brought the practice of overbooking into sharp focus. Why do we let airlines get away with overbooking? How is this even legal? A ticket is essentially a contract: In exchange for my money, you will take me from point A to point B. Seems pretty simple, right? So why are airlines allowed to renege on that contract?
Let’s say you planned to take your sweetie out for a big date at a concert. You bought your tickets months in advance and made arrangements for transportation, hotel, etc. You and your sweetie get all dressed up, show up at the arena, and get settled in your seats only to be tossed from the arena because they are “oversold.” You’d feel like burning something down, wouldn’t you? And yet airlines do this every day.
Now, let’s imagine that you made reservations for dinner on your date night but the restaurant canceled them. Sure, you’d probably be pissed but a reservation is free. You haven’t put up any money and so you are getting what you paid for. You expect the restaurant to honor the reservation but you know that since you don’t have any skin in the game you have to go along. See the difference?
When my family and I went to Jamaica for vacation two years ago, my son’s ear infection prompted us to forgo our return flight home, a doctor having told us that flying could rupture his eardrum. It seemed an easy thing to just catch another flight home once he was safe to fly but it was extraordinarily difficult to find empty seats! Southwest’s planes were so packed that it was days until seats were available for a trip home.
That’s the problem that overbooking presents. A voucher does no good if there are no flights with empty seats with which you can use it. If airlines are going to fill every seat and make a voucher flight just as difficult to catch, why would people willingly give up the “bird in the hand” that is the seat they’re sitting in? What good is a voucher if the travel it provides is a day or more late?
Airlines have gotten away with overbooking for far too long due to lax FAA regulation. In any other industry it would be considered a crime to sell something you haven’t got. I sure hope United’s incident lights a fire under Congress and regulators to rein in this ridiculous practice.