Flight overbooking: how common is it?

After the forced removal of a man from a US plane, how common is flight overbooking and what rights do passengers have? 

Airlines book more people onto a flight than there are seats on the plane for a variety of reasons. Passengers don’t always turn up — due to missed connections or changed plans — and carriers end up using a smaller aircraft than planned.

The problem is usually sorted through a request for volunteers, although if that doesn’t work randomly selected passengers can be stopped from flying. In the recent case of United Airlines, this sparked global outrage when a passenger was dragged from a Chicago flight in order to free up space for flight crew.

The practice of flight overbooking is perfectly legal and helps airlines to keep fares lower in the long run, while fuller planes are better for the environment.

Boarding figures

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) says that on average fewer than 0.02% of passengers flying in and out of the UK were affected by denied boarding during 2015. This equates to an estimated 50,000 passengers.

In the US, the number of people denied boarding was 552,000 in 2015, which according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics represents 0.09% of the total number of passengers carried by the major airlines.

Having looked at the issue of denied boarding in its recent report on assisting passengers during disruption, the CAA says it is satisfied there are no compliance issues for airlines to address.

Compensation offer

When a flight is overbooked, many passengers do so voluntarily in return for cash or vouchers. But if there’s no agreement, European law sets out certain rights for flights departing or arriving at EU airports.

For short-haul flights of less than 1,500km, compensation is 125 euros (£106) for a delay of less than two hours and 250 euros (£212) for more than two hours. On long-haul flights, the entitlement is up to 600 euros (£510).

The airline must offer an alternative flight as well as assistance until the next boarding, or money back if the passenger doesn’t want to travel anymore.