Overbooked: stories of airline agony (and some rewards)


Airlines have long found ways to entice passengers off their planes. Often, this is a result of flights’ being overbooked, as airlines try to fill as many seats as possible. When they overbook, airlines begin a process of bargaining with passengers at the gate, offering travel vouchers that usually range from $400 to $600, up to a maximum of $1,350, according to U.S. Transportation Department guidelines. 

Sometimes, as was the case when United Airlines removed Dr. David Dao from a plane this month, bargaining was not a result of the flight’s being oversold. Dao was asked to get off the flight in order to free a seat for a United employee. After he refused, he was forcefully dragged off the plane.  

Videos of Dao’s removal surfaced on social media and led hundreds of readers to share their travel stories with The New York Times. Many reported on negative experiences they had with a wide range of airlines on domestic and international flights. Some included the incentives they were offered, or not offered, to give up their seats. Some comments have been edited for space and clarity.  

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— Dr. Donald Laub said he was made to get off a plane and take a later flight, and was offered no incentives:  

The flight attendants said that the flight was overweight and asked for volunteers for a later flight. When no volunteers came forward, I was informed that I had been randomly selected to be rescheduled for a later flight.  

After I deplaned, I was informed that there was in fact no later flight. I would have to take a shuttle from Dulles International Airport to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and take a flight the next morning. No hotel vouchers were offered and no ticket vouchers were given, since this was an involuntary rescheduling.  

Needless to say, I was late to my clinic the next day, and many of my patients were inconvenienced and needed to be rescheduled.  

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— Lyn Hogan said her family had a vacation disrupted by their removal from an overbooked flight. They lost a day of prepaid skiing and received flight vouchers they didn’t want:  

We had booked and paid for our direct flights three months in advance in preparation for the children’s February break. Our condo and lift tickets were prepaid. We were to arrive at the condo that evening and start skiing the next day.  

We showed up with plenty of time to check in to our flight — we made the mistake of not checking in online the night before. We were assigned seats that split us up as a family — not ideal but OK.  

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. 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.  

They rebooked our flights, but we had to take separate flights, splitting up two and two, and take three — yes, three — flights, instead of a direct flight to our destination. We missed a full day of prepaid skiing. I think we each got a $500 voucher, but we didn’t want it — it was not worth the pain, delay and agony. It still makes me mad to this day.  

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One reader, mb, wrote about his embarrassment over learning that his elite frequent-flier status made him immune to being bumped, even if it meant removing another passenger who had a seat assignment:  

When I first learned of this, I was horrified. I couldn’t imagine doing that to someone.  

Then a flight from Charlotte to Dallas was canceled, there was only one other flight home that night, and it was oversold.  

I’m embarrassed to say that I used my new superpower and got home to my family — at the expense of someone else with lower status.  

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— Not all readers were unhappy with their rebooking experience on an overbooked flight.  

Val wrote about the cordial way that an international airline handled an overbooked flight. The airline, she said, kindly requested that she forfeit her seat, “offering me a sizable amount of cash before they transported me to a nice hotel, which they paid for, along with paying for my dinner and breakfast the next morning, transporting me back to the airport, and giving me a great seat for my flight home the next day.”  

Referring to the United Airlines episode, Val wrote:  

I could not even imagine such an outrageous display here in Europe, where we are still spared the indignities suffered by American passengers. Flying in Europe is still perfectly safe without leaving our baggage unlocked and being nuked, groped, felt up, molested, profiled, asked to change our mode of dress and dragged off planes like a sack of potatoes!  

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— Marlene Dodes-Callahan wrote that a sweetened offer, compared with the typical voucher value, made all the difference:  

My husband and I volunteered to give up our seats when a flight was overbooked. They gave us free round-trip tickets to anywhere in the United States and the next flight out to our destination, which was only a couple of hours later. They requested passengers willing to give up their seats.  

It was all quite cordial. Nothing as violent as United. All they had to do was up the ante, and I’m sure they would have garnered volunteers. It would have been way cheaper than canceling a flight and creating a lawsuit by an extremely abused passenger, not to mention the bad press for United.


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