Why do airlines overbook flights and what are my rights?

What might make flying even more stressful than it already is? Being refused to board and it wasn't even your fault! For a few reasons, airlines routinely overbook flights. Why do airlines still choose to sell more tickets than they are able to hold if they are aware of the passenger capacity for each flight? In this blog post, we'll explain everything about this phenomenon and offer you a few suggestions for preventing it from happening to you!

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Why do flights often get overbooked?

By filling up their aircraft as much as possible—ideally, 100%—airlines strive to maximize their earnings. To do that, they must significantly overbook their flights prior to the departure date and assume that the level of the booking will eventually reduce to 100% of the flight capacity. This is done to account for the probable no-show passengers. 


What leads to a decrease in the number of flight bookings?

Airline bookings are frequently made far in advance, so some passengers will inevitably modify their plans (especially business travellers). Some of these ticket adjustments may even be cost-free, depending on the ticket types people purchase. Some of these adjustments to tickets may occur extremely close to the scheduled departure, which means the airlines have already missed their chance to fill the vacant seat.

A few passengers just do not show up for their flights. Maybe they changed their plans at the last minute (if not, they would have updated the schedule on the ticket), or maybe they are running late. Passengers may be able to modify their travel plans after a no-show in specific circumstances by paying a minimal no-show penalty. In this scenario, the airline would be unable to charge for that empty seat.


What will happen if everyone shows up on the flight that was overbooked by the airline?

Upgrading or downgrading seats in the airplane — Because demand for one cabin is higher than for the other cabins, overbooking frequently affects only that one cabin (e.g., economy vs. business class). In some cases, seats on flights in other cabins may still be available. As a result, there are two outcomes: an upgrade or a downgrade. Overbooking is among the most common reasons for a free upgrade. However, downgrading of passengers does occur occasionally (always with some form of compensation).

Providing willing passengers with alternative flight options — If an earlier flight is available, the counter staff will ask whether anyone is willing to take it upon checking in. Travellers that get to the airport early are usually pleased to take this alternative flight because they get to escape long lines and reach their destination faster.

Finding volunteers to give up their seats — Airlines start looking for passengers who are willing to be offloaded during check-in in exchange for compensation, which is typically provided in the form of cash, a show of goodwill from the airline, such as an upgrade on the subsequent flight, and a "protection" flight that still gets the passengers to their destination but may do so on a later flight or with a different airline.

Denying boarding to passengers — If none of the aforementioned measures frees up enough seats to accommodate everyone, the last option is to deny boarding to some passengers, who are often the last to arrive at check-in.


plane window, male silhouette, sunlight


If you want to maximize your chances of getting on board that flight, we recommend checking in online if the option is available and arriving at the airport early. Typically, airlines allow passengers to check in online up to 24-48 hours before the flight and it is likely that you can also choose your designated seat by doing this.

If you are denied boarding, knowing your rights as a passenger traveling by air, including your right to ask for compensation and an alternative flight, is crucial. Learn about the EU261 and your rights before taking a flight on a European airline or travelling outside of the EU.

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