Why do airlines oversell seats?

Hot on the heels of James Dawson’s legal victory in the Court of Appeal, upholding his compensation from Thomson Airlines following a six hour delayed departure for his flight from Gatwick to the Dominican Republic, six years after the flight, I would like to suggest another airline loophole which needs resolving – airlines deliberately overselling seats, which happened to my friend last week.

James (pic) is married to my niece Sarah, and the Court’s decision to uphold his victory potentially opens the floodgates for passengers to sue airlines six years later, a ruling that could lead to more than 11 million passenger claims and cost airlines up to £4bn. Thomson plans to appeal against James’ landmark test case which has set a precedent to the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, is it right that airlines should oversell seats, resulting in passengers turning up at the airport – but never being able to set foot on the plane as their allocated seat has been given to another passenger. That is what happened – or almost happened – to my friend last week.

This is my friend’s story:

Imagine you’ve worked hard for months and booked a mini break away to a romantic European city to enjoy some history, culture, great food, great weather and to have a relaxing time.

Imagine that when you arrive at the airport you are told the flight is full and to come back tomorrow.

How would you feel?

I had booked and paid to fly to Florence with Easyjet with my partner. The day before, we had been trying to check in both online and on Easyjet’s app but was told both times that there was an error and to use the check-in desk at the airport. Having typed into Google, ‘Easyjet website not working’, and seeing that it had gone down a couple of weeks ago, I presumed this had happened again.

On our day of departure, and after a long queue for the check-in desk at Gatwick, we were told by the young girl booking us in that our flight had been “oversold” and that we didn’t have a seat on the flight. To reiterate, we had paid for the flight and for subsequent activities at our destination later that day, including our hotel reservation and food and drink tours. We were told that this happens quite often and people ‘book far out in advance’ (surely that should make the availability easier to manage?). After numerous phone calls and trips behind the desk, the check-in assistant told us that the next flight to our destination was the following day, or we could take a flight from Luton later in the day. Our only other alternative was to head to the gate and hope that two passengers didn’t turn up.

We arrived at the gate 15 minutes prior to it closing and made ourselves known to the gate crew. My heart was racing at the thought of a ruined holiday as we were only going away for two nights.

When all the passengers had passed through the gate for the flight, I asked what our chances were. There were still three sets of people who hadn’t arrived which provided us with hope. Following an announcement, two of the parties arrived at the gate. My head was in my hands, there would be no chance of us getting on now!

The gate should now have closed, but five minutes after the final call, two passengers had still not arrived. They had checked their luggage on, but were nowhere to be seen. An announcement went out informing the two passengers that they had a minute to arrive or their tickets would be given away. They did not turn up and we were told we could board the plane. I have never been so happy to board an Easyjet plane in all my life. Our holiday was saved.

Our joy turned to sadness, however, when we thought about the couple who didn’t make it. We saw their bags being removed from the plane. Shortly after we boarded, someone entered the plane asking if there were anymore seats – the couple must have finally arrived.

I am grateful to the two ladies at the gate who made the decision to allow us to board, but how can airlines get away with this? Although compensation negotiations hadn’t taken place, we were told we would not be compensated for any activities we had booked at our destination, and I don’t know if they would have paid for us to travel from Gatwick to Luton. I was disappointed with the lack of compassion or sympathy considering this was a distressing situation. The only people who seemed to take sympathetic view were the ladies at the gate and I am extremely thankful for that.

I am interested to know how common this is. Even if Easyjet would most likely have compensated me, this wouldn’t have made up for my lost day, I would not get an extra day off work to reschedule my holiday around their mismanagement.

With airlines using advanced ticketing systems, how can this be deemed acceptable? Surely if the ticket has been paid for by a passenger, it’s not right and proper for an airline to deliberately sell it again on the chance that a passenger might not turn up. That seat must surely belongs to the passenger if they have paid for it.

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