[No Excuse Zone] Proposed Criminal Charges for Airline Overbooking

As holiday travel reaches its peak today, millions will zip through the air from one place to another, enduring the tedious but necessary hassle of security screening and walking from one end of Terminal A to the opposite end of Terminal D in order to spend some time with those they love. Some nontrivial subset of these folks won’t make it on time, if at all, and not because of weather delays or true mechanical malfunctions of the aircraft. Instead, they will be “bumped” from flights that have been deliberately and knowingly oversold by most domestic air carriers.

Airline schedulers: How the world do you overbook an airplane? More importantly, how do you sleep with a clear conscience after doing so? Or are travelers merely numbers to be rearranged, instead of paying customers, real people with real lives, to be treated with utmost respect? Some airlines, such as JetBlue, don’t deliberately oversell; why should your (most probably) less successful and lower rated company?

Though not for an airline, I have worked in the mass transportation industry. At (Continental) Trailways, we transported hundreds of thousands of people and their luggage per year from one place to another across this great nation, and not once did we deliberately oversell a bus. Not a single time…nor was the idea even considered! Trailways may have deep-sixed themselves with mismanagement in other areas, but at least they didn’t go bankrupt because they failed to sell an excess seat or two while cramming the most people possible into the fewest possible runs from Jackson to Jacksonville (by way of Phoenix, natch).

Passengers, too, bear a personal responsibility to use the tickets they buy (or else don’t buy them in the first place!). However, since the money is already in the airline’s coffers, what does it matter to their bottom lines if a passenger fails to show? That’s how we treated unused bus tickets. It just meant more arm room for everyone else, and presumably a more satisfied ridership among those who did show.

As a former transportation worker and a current airline customer, I find overbooking to be deplorable, intolerable, inexcusable, needless, deceptive, manipulative and truly criminal in nature. It doesn’t matter how common or accepted it is, overbooking is wrong. This already (and unquestionably) unethical and conniving business practice should be illegal with penalties of jail time and a criminal record for those airline managers and executives who engage in it.

Extreme, say you? Well, if I were to write thousands of checks for money I didn’t have, the county DA would have the cops come out, wrap me up like a mummy in all manner of chains and cuffs and drag me straight to the nearest jailhouse for a long, long time, no matter my offers to compensate. And this would be the good and correct thing to do, in order to put a stop to such larcenous tomfoolery. The principle is the same for airlines selling seats they don’t really have.

Overbooking is a form of stealing: thoughtless and systematically condoned theft of the customer’s time and effort, as well as that of the poor gate agents and customer service reps who have to deal with the ramifications. Last I checked, theft was illegal in most of its manifestations, but alas, not this one. Prison is a fitting place for thieves. Let’s first make overbooking a crime, then put overbooking airline managers there.

For the record, this rant is not motivated in the least by a personal grudge. I never have been directly affected by the practice of overselling an airplane flight, so I harbor no first-hand embitterment over the matter. [I have, however, heard many ugly stories from friends, co-workers and relatives, making it seem lottery-fortunate that I haven’t experienced such mistreatment yet.]

Instead, this is based on something far more fundamental: the time honored, middle-American principles of common sense and treating customers right. Are those two ideals utterly lost on many airline managers? It seems so.

The aviation industry is the only one I can recall where it’s not only customary, but accepted by all involved, to sell something they know that they don’t even have. Further, and even more astoundingly, passengers seem to passively accept this, and at best, grumble and gripe a little if they are bumped from a flight as a result. Or at worst, take it out on the gate agents, who quite unjustly become the smiling targets of irate customers’ venom because of inane policies of some faceless, suit-wearing pinheads in a different department of the airline.

Yet of the folks I’ve known who have suffered the indignity of being “bumped,” only a tiny minority have done anything about it later through letters to the airlines, Better Business Bureaus, and state and national legislators. Clearly I don’t understand that. Why should anyone with half a spine be so accommodating and accepting toward such garbage, especially if they wouldn’t take it from other types of businesses? Is this a form of passive acceptance of abuse, as per the well documented syndrome of captor-captive sympathy, or instead, a form of mass submission to the seemingly hopeless, as with the Ugandans under Idi Amin or Afghans under the Taliban?

In a way, I’m looking forward to the first time an airline pulls this crap on me. Admittedly something of a combatant by nature, I have not, do not and will not stand for mistreatment by any business, of any size, for any reason (as a few here in Norman and other places have learned already). The customer comes first, period. I am the customer. As such I have uncompromising ideals of integrity. Treat me with respect and courtesy, sell me a good product at a fair price, and I will be loyal to the grave or to the business’ betrayal of me, whichever comes first. Treat me like trash that can be thrown away, and it will cost dearly in lost time spent dealing with my letters of complaint, lost man-hours issuing apologies and/or coupons, lost revenue from me and others not patronizing the business again, and loss of reputation as a result of my spreading the news far and wide by every medium possible (letters, word of mouth, websites, forums, filing court claims if possible, along with however else I’m legally motivated).

Until that happens, though, I simply must imagine what the experience must be like. Do so with me…

Imagine being a USC or UT fan (I can’t, but that’s a different story). You buy the ticket, reserve a hotel room, fly out there, take a cab or bus to the game, get in line. You’re told at the gate, “Whoops, we overbooked this Rose Bowl game. Somebody else has your seat. We’ll give you vouchers valid toward another Rose Bowl in the future.” Would this be acceptable?

If I write those rubber checks, the DA isn’t going let me off scot-free because I belatedly pass vouchers toward my future income to those I ripped off. Instead I would be spending a lot of time staring at the paint-peeling ceiling of 10X6 concrete box.

Imagine going to the restaurant to order your favorite meal. Instead of informing you before you buy that they’re sold out of everything in that big steak dinner, they take your money, set the last sizzling and juicy steak on a tray between you and the guy at the next table, tell you at that time that it was sold to two people, give it to him instead, and serve you no food. Then, while claiming with a straight face how much they value your business, the waiter offers you a couple of starlight mints and a coupon for tomorrow’s breakfast special of steamed grits with hash browns. Would this be acceptable?

Well, guess what that DA does if I give the businesses that received those bogus checks the lint from my pockets and a hastily scrawled coupon for some of the rusty tools in my shed? Sunshine, trees and clouds might become an ever more foreign concept as my worldview becomes some loud hallway as seen and heard through big fat metal bars.

Imagine booking your kids’ dream vacation at the only resort with a vacancy remaining in Orlando. You arrive to check in, several bags of luggage, a frazzled spouse and several fidgety and noisy kids all in tow. You had to prepay to even get a reservation (what a strange concept, eh?). The hotel clerk then informs you that you’re SOL, they’ve oversold the rooms, and you’ll have to take a voucher for the next room that isn’t already reserved and becomes available…who knows when. Would this be acceptable?

That rubber-check prosecutor certainly won’t show me any mercy if I offer to give those merchants good checks tomorrow, or whenever the next occasion arises I can come up with some. In fact, that plea might result in a longer incarceration!

The problem is selling something you don’t have. The ultimate solution is a prison cell. It’s that simple.

In the meantime, check out this handy guide to filing complaints from airsafe.com. The DOT Inspector General also has an online complaint form, but from their description, it has no teeth and little or no impact. Filling it out may be for cathartic purposes only. Local Better Business Bureaus also accept reports of unsavory business practices.


2 Responses to “[No Excuse Zone] Proposed Criminal Charges for Airline Overbooking”

  1. Clay on January 3rd, 2007 9:35 pm

    Goodness, no! Please don’t stop overbooking. Those of us with flexible schedules who know how to milk the system will gladly give up our seats, accept the (typically) generous airline vouchers, and explore XYZ airport for two hours while you soar through the troposphere. I hope that we both hold tickets on an overbooked Southwest flight some day – I’ll be first in line to volunteer for bumping, and you’ll get to your destination on time while I peruse the SWA timetables figuring out where to go with my $300-500 flight voucher.

  2. Suso on March 25th, 2007 11:44 pm

    The person above better be sarcastic. If they are not, a big up yours buddy. Those of us who are responsible, properly plan our time and respectful of others will not be at the mercy of people like you. Get some sense.

    I agree with what tornado said, this practice is completely unethical, the airlines are basically stealing time from their customers.

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