Why do Airlines Overbook Flights? Tips on How to Avoid Getting Bumped?

This might come as a surprise to many travellers, but bumping passengers from overbooked flights is not only commonplace but also a perfectly legal practice in the aviation industry. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter how far in advance you book your flight, you can still get bumped!

Neil and Kathryn, whose story featured on CBC are a good example. Despite booking their Toronto to Miami flight 2 months earlier, they still had to give up the seats from their Air Canada flight. The fact that they played by all the rules – even arriving at the airport three hours early – didn’t help much.

Although they were put on the next flight that was available (12 hours later) and compensated with a C$800 cheque each, it didn’t fully mitigate against the out of pocket expenses they had to undergo adjusting their holiday itinerary.

Why Do Airlines Overbook Flights?

Airlines are always out to maximize their seat sales and usually overbook flights to cater for customers who fail to turn up for their scheduled flight. This practice not only helps airlines to lower their operating costs but also enables them to offer their customers a lower fare category where they can change their flights. Put in another way, if airlines didn’t overbook flights, you’d probably pay more for your seat to make up for lost revenue.

Federal Government to Introduce Legislation On Passenger Rights

The United Airlines controversy has prompted the Canadian federal government to prepare legislation that regulates bumping as part of a wider proposal captured in the air passenger bill of rights. The bill will set a national standard ensuring airline passengers are treated fairly in Canada and will streamline the compensation process.

Meanwhile, airlines have also come up with measures to make the process of bumping passengers less painful. US based Delta, for example, say they’ll allow their agents and supervisors to give passengers between $2,000 and $9,950 in exchange for forfeiting their seats.

Air Canada reportedly compensates passengers amounts ranging from $800 to $2,500 whenever they’re forced to give up their seats.

Tips on How to Avoid Getting Bumped

Although overbooking isn’t very common it’s always best to be prepared for the worst. There’s nothing as irritating as missing your preferred flight even if you get compensated. Of course, if you’re travelling first class or business, or you happen to enjoy status with an airline you’re less likely to get bumped, but for those travelling economy there are still some things you can do to avoid getting bumped:

  1. Check in using an online portal before the flight. Some airlines will even send you an email reminding you to check in online 24 hours before your flight.
  2. When you check-in online don’t forget to pre-select your seat including your seat number. This will not only help you secure your seat, but it will also save your time at the airport.
  3. Make a point of arriving at the airport well in advance of departure for a smoother check-in process (never mind that this didn’t work in the case cited above). Different airlines have varying deadlines for you to check-in, drop-off your baggage and present yourself at the boarding gate. The deadlines vary depending on whether your flight is domestic or international.

Sometimes there isn’t much you can do. For example, an airline like WestJet will sometimes bump passengers in situations where it has to switch from a larger plane to a smaller one with fewer seats.

In the event that you do get bumped, here’s what you should know:

  1. Once you volunteer to take an alternative flight, how you’re compensated is at the discretion of the airline; usually, they’ll offer you a flight credit. It’s therefore important to know that once you say yes to the deal, there’s no going back. You can’t ask for more compensation once you’ve voluntary agreed.
  2. Before you say yes to the deal, you might want to find out if the airline is ready to provide other amenities such as a hotel room, free meals and transfers between the hotel and the airport. If they don’t you may end up forking out your own money paying for these services while you wait for your next flight.
  3. Under US jurisdiction compensation will vary depending on how late you are arriving at your destination. If the substitute flight is able to arrive at your destination without significantly altering your arrival time, then you’re not entitled to compensation.
  4. In the US compensation ranges between 100 and 400 percent up to a limit of $1350, and depends on how late you are arriving at your destination.


While overbooking passengers may seem like a bad PR move, it’s clear that the practice is here to stay.  What you should do as a passenger is make sure you know your rights when it comes to compensation, and try to get the best deal out of such a situation.