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I heard and read about other airlines but not about Norwegian. I read their website and searched for articles, blog posts but there is nothing I can find.

Do they overbook flights?

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    There is a difference between "not overbooking to a level where passengers will be turned away" and "not overbooking at all, ever"; to which are you referring? – TimLymington Aug 23 at 15:16
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It is well settled that it is legal for an airline to overbook flights, and the EC261 compensation rules even makes it definite and knowable to the airline how much it will cost them to guess wrong about the number of no-shows -- thereby enabling a crisp business-driven decision about how much to overbook each particular flight.

The only possible reason an airline would have not to overbook is that they would be able play this up heavily in their marketing, hoping that passengers concerned about being bumped would choose to fly with them rather than a competitor.

Since Norwegian are not in fact bragging loudly about how they don't overbook, it seems safe to assume that they do in fact overbook.

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    @Rsf: As a passenger you won't normally see the overbooking, unless the airline's guesses about the number of no-shows turned out to be more wrong than the safety factor they're using. Simply because they didn't need to bump anyone from a smallish sampling of flights doesn't mean those flights can't have been overbooked. – Henning Makholm Aug 23 at 10:28
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    Also how would you even know if someone who isn't in your party was bumped when they tried to check in after you had already checked in and had passed security? – Henning Makholm Aug 23 at 10:29
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    again total anecdotally but I saw people being bumped from local flights in the US, but the point is that in my view lack of bragging isn't proof to anything. Norwegian might or might not overbook to some degree but that doesn't mean it affects passengers. – Rsf Aug 23 at 10:54
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    @Rsf I have worked in the airline business. Most of the overbooking done is visible mainly in that the planes people fly in are reasonably full, instead of having lots of vacancies from statistically predictable late cancels and no-shows. Even in cases where the date-of-departure approaches and cancels do not meet expectations, overbooking is resolved through individual negotiation (eg. look up someone on a business trip, offer them a hotel night with meals and drinks in return of taking the next flight instead) in the vast majority of cases. Cases that other passengers could see are rare. – kviiri Aug 24 at 7:20
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    (contd.) Airline profit margins are thin. Having the planes as full as possible is essential to making a profit, and overbooking is very much an industry standard way of ensuring planes are filled. The fact that you see more bumpings on certain airlines is with near 100% certainty an artifact of some airlines being better (eg. having more data) at estimating traffic, some routes being more chaotic (harder to estimate) than others, and some airlines handling their overbooking in a more visible, perhaps even sloppy manner. – kviiri Aug 24 at 7:29
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Yes, as probably every other airline, Norwegian is also overbooking their flights.

They have in the past months received quite a lot of negative press in Norway about this issue. Since all Norwegian's 737 MAX airplaines are currently grounded, they are also regularly flying replacement aircrafts with less seats than originally anticipated and the situation is quite tense.

Being denied boarding by Norwegian may have more significant impact than with other airlines. On many routes, Norwegian have very infrequent departures, so being bumped to the next departure may mean that you are stuck for a day or more. You can not assume that Norwegian will transfer you to a flight operated by other airlines.

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    Considering Norwegian is part of Airlines for Europe (A4E) since 2016, they might transfer you after all. Probably to another budget carrier like Ryanair (also a member of A4E). – Mast Aug 23 at 8:04
  • @Mast I know a few people having been denied boarding by Norwegian for different reasons and that has never happened. You are offered a refund of the ticket or the option to wait for a free seat on the next Norwegian departure. Norwegian is also rarely directly competing with other no-frill carriers on the same routes, so if they should offer to book you on another carrier, they would most likely have to do that on a conventional airline. – Tor-Einar Jarnbjo Aug 23 at 10:53
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    @Mast A4E is not an alliance, it's just a lobbying organisation. It actually includes members such as Air France-KLM, Lufthansa or IAG (BA, Iberia...), which are each in their own alliance, as well as low-cast carriers such as Easyjet or Ryanair. – jcaron Aug 23 at 15:08
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The whole overbooking concept is tightly linked to flexible fares, mostly used by business travellers who change their plans frequently and late, which may leave the airline with many empty and unpaid seats. That's the reason airlines overbook: they need to have someone in that seat so they can get paid.

Low-cost carriers usually overbook a lot less than incumbents because many of their fares are non-refundable and non-modifiable or attract high penalties for cancellations or changes, so whether the passenger actually flies or not, they have paid their seat, and there's no need to "replace" them.

However, even though in the beginning of LCCs fares were non-refundable and overbooking wasn't needed, the lines have blurred a bit, so it's possible for them to overbook, though this should be in very small numbers (remember that it will cost them dearly if they have to bump someone now).

Note that any airline, even if they don't normally overbook, may end up in situations that have the same effect as overbooking:

  • The aircraft had to be switched to a different one with less seats
  • There is a safety issue on board which prevents use of the full capacity of the aircraft (there are damaged seats, seatbelts, life vests, emergency slides, oxygen supplies, etc. or there is missing cabin crew...)
  • There was previous disruption with flights delayed/cancelled/diverted, and there is now a lack of capacity to handle both the original passengers and those who would need to be rebooked (in general those originally booked on the flight that actually departs have priority over those who need to be rebooked, but for a number of operational/PR reasons sometimes it's better to bump one of them).

So whatever the airline, you may end up being refused boarding. That's where EC261 comes in :-)

  • I dispute the premise of this answer. Airlines with seats that are empty due to changes on flexible fares do get paid. They get paid the extra that they charge for allowing the fare to be flexible in the first place. Of course they will want to maximise profits by attempting to refill the empty seat (and their ability to do so will be reflected in the flexi fare premium), but it is not correct to say they are unpaid even if the seat remains empty. – JBentley Aug 25 at 17:04
  • Low-cost carriers also have more leisure travelers, and they tend to be more likely to show up than business travelers. I've flown Norwegian for work, and it was always dicey because they had three flights per week on that route, no network to speak of, and no partners. – David Ehrmann Aug 25 at 18:16

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