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Overbooking: finally, an airline gets smart

Overbooking is a sensible concept. Passengers “no show” for flights for which they have confirmed reservations for many reasons: illness, changes in plans, not allowing enough time to reach the airport …

Accordingly, selling more tickets than there are seats on the plane can be a very profitable sideline.

There are other beneficiaries besides the airline. Someone who needs to make a last-minute emergency dash can become the 181st ticket holder for that 180-seater jet, and can expect to get on board. And the environmental damage per passenger is slightly reduced when planes fly with more seats occupied.

But overbooking needs to be correctly managed when the airline guesses wrong and too many passengers show up expecting to take their seats. The correct response from the airline to such a situation is to recruit volunteers to travel on a later flight by raising the financial incentive until enough passengers are happy to walk away.

In my experience, US carriers are very good at handling such embarrassments. They will often discreetly enrol “just in case” volunteers ahead of the closure of the flight. The deal is this: if too many people show up, and you are called upon to offload, you will be showered with benefits such as cash or a free flight, plus a night in a hotel if it means an overnight stay.

When there are too many passengers, there will be cheerful offloadees – often including me. I am the first to volunteer for taking a later flight if a reasonable remedy is proposed: last time it was $600 (£472) for waiting an extra three hours at Salt Lake City airport, courtesy of Delta.

All too often in the UK, the opposite happens. While airline ground staff are legally required to ask for volunteers, on many occasions they just don’t bother. Instead, they typically offload the last people to check in – possibly singling out those who have not checked in baggage, to save having to extract cases from the hold.

At last, a Spanish budget airline appears to have come up with a solution designed to minimise the problem. Vueling is writing to some passengers with an offer to “change your flight and get a discount”.

Here’s how it works, according to reader Evan Davis. Ahead of a London Gatwick-Barcelona flight with Vueling, the airline sent an email reading: “Would you consider changing your flight and getting a discount of €125 [£107] per person?”

My interpretation of this message: the flight Mr Davis had booked is seeing an unexpected surge in demand. Vueling knows it can sell seats for that departure for significantly more than the passenger paid (in Mr Davis’s case, just £36) – even when that €125 voucher for future travel is taken into account.

Vueling is seeking to lock in the revenue benefit of a demand surge, while shifting passengers to flights on which it knows there will be empty seats.

Passengers who need to travel on that specific flight are assured that they need to do nothing to keep their place on board.

Mr Davis has sent me the list of available flights from which he was invited to choose. On the busy Gatwick-Barcelona, it was quite a menu. He said: “I chose one just over an hour after my original flight. I wasn’t in too much of a hurry to get to Barcelona.”

Naturally, terms and conditions apply. The €125 voucher must be spent in a single transaction, which may be a challenge on a budget airline – and Vueling also knows that some passengers with vouchers will not use them before the expiry date.

But I urge other airlines to follow suit: they stand to make more money and cheese off fewer travellers.

For more travel news, views and advice from Simon, download his daily Independent Travel podcast.

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