I have been a frequent flyer since I was one year old and I have heard the gate employee time and time again say "Due to this flight being over booked we are offering free vouchers for those who are willing take this flight at a later date" and yet I have never actually seen anyone take said offer. In the case of a overbooked flight in which not a single person cares to take a later flight what would the airline do? Assume every person is present at the gate at boarding time and no one is willing to not take that flight. How would this be handled according to company policy? I want to clarify that when I say overbooked I mean the number of tickets sold exceeds the number of seats available on the aircraft.
Chris gave the US side of the answer. You will find the European side on the EU website which regulates the following flights
- departing from any airport situated in the EU, or
- arriving in the EU with an EU carrier or one from Iceland, Norway or Switzerland.
So it applies not matter the carrier's homebase.
This is for flight overbooking, cancellations, delays... The EU protects consumers well.
I have often experienced that, and what typically happens is that they slowly increase their offer until someone bites. And someone will always bite if the offer is high enough. The best offer I ever saw was 800 $, taxi, hotel, dinner, and a first class flight next morning for an overbooked late Friday hop from Atlanta to Orlando.
(On a side note, those offers always only happen when I cannot afford to arrive a day later...)
If not enough volunteers are found, passengers will be involuntarily removed from the flight. In the US, the Department of Transportation requires that volunteers are sought first.
From the DoT website:
Overbooking is not illegal, and most airlines overbook their scheduled flights to a certain extent in order to compensate for "no-shows." Passengers are sometimes left behind or "bumped" as a result. When an oversale occurs, the Department of Transportation (DOT) requires airlines to ask people who aren't in a hurry to give up their seats voluntarily, in exchange for compensation. Those passengers bumped against their will are, with a few exceptions, entitled to compensation.
DOT requires each airline to give all passengers who are bumped involuntarily a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn't. Those travelers who don't get to fly are frequently entitled to denied boarding compensation in the form of a check or cash.
Quoting the American Airlines website,
If at departure time more customers with confirmed reservations are present than there are seats available, gate agents will first ask for volunteers who are willing to give up their seats in exchange for compensation and a confirmed seat on a later flight. On extremely rare occasions, a customer may be denied boarding on an involuntary basis, if a sufficient number of volunteers are not obtained. In such events, we will usually deny boarding based upon check-in time, but we may also consider factors such as severe hardships, fare paid, and status within the AAdvantage program. With few exceptions, persons denied boarding involuntarily are entitled to compensation under federal law.
I have been involuntarily bumped once for overbooking, and have taken the offer several times. My parents, and this was not their usual style, once left a plane they had already boarded when the agent came on with US Cash (not even a check) looking for two volunteers.
The time I was bumped involuntarily I was re-routed, paid several hundred dollars in vouchers, and got an upgrade to Economy Plus.