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Why Can Airlines Overbook Flights?

When my fiancee and I flew back to Taiwan a few weeks ago, the United flight from Baltimore Washington International Airport to Los Angeles International Airport was oversold and they were offering folks some vouchers to give up their seats. Luckily enough of them agreed and no one was forced off the flight in return for a hotel night and a meal voucher. That made me wonder… why is it that airlines can sell products that they don’t necessarily have?

I think everyone understands why the airlines do this but I don’t understand why they’re allowed to do it. When you purchase something online, the vendor will tell you that the product you want is out of stock. Sometimes they let you backorder it and they won’t charge you until it ships. Sometimes they won’t let you order it at all and so you aren’t charged anything. Airlines? They don’t tell you a thing until you’re all packed, your bags are checked, and your plans are all set… then they drop on you that you can’t get on the flight. So, in return for losing part of your trip, getting everything re-planned, and having to deal with the annoyances of your plans laid to waste, you get a few concessions that you probably wouldn’t want anyway. How is this possibly fair?

I don’t mean to rant but this particular article on the Consumerist about a Marine looking to go home to visit his dying grandmother struck a chord [3] with me because of the similarities but I’ve always thought the whole practice of overbooking was ridiculous in the first place.