United Airlines pledged it would not overbook as many flights, but it will continue to overbook. Although the chances of you getting bumped are very low, here’s how United handles an oversell situation.
As part of the wholesale re-evaluation of its customer service approach, United is trying to be transparent about how it chooses who is bumped off an oversold flight. The important thing — customers are not subject to discretionary choice by agents.
- First, agents will deny boarding if a passenger does not have a seat assignment prior to boarding the aircraft
- Customers are then sorted by fare class (estimated fare paid) and type of itinerary
- Customers with the lowest paid fare are placed at the top of the list for involuntary denial of boarding
- If a group of customers paid the same fare, then the group is sorted by time of check-in
- Customers with frequent flyer status will not be involuntarily denied boarding, unless all of the remaining passengers have frequent flyer status, in which case the lowest status will move to the top of the IDB list
- Customers with special needs (unaccompanied minors, passengers with disabilities) are excluded and are not involuntarily denied boarding
Similar processes are in places at Delta and American and I cannot think of a fairer system other than not overbooking at all (which leads to more expensive airline tickets as per seat margins grow smaller without an oversell buffer).
A Double-Edged Sword: One Strategy to Avoid Getting Bumped
Travis from One Mile at a Time shares a great story about how he scored a prime exit row seat for free on Frontier Airlines. By waiting until the very last minute to assign a seat, he received the best seat on the plane since all the other seats had been assigned.
But this strategy is not without risk. As he even admits, not assigning yourself a seat increases your risk of being bumped since that is the #1 criteria airlines use in choosing who to bump.
So if your travel plans are a bit flexible, I’d take the chance and hold out for a better seat. But if you need to be on a flight, you need to take whatever seat is available as soon as possible. Even a middle seat in the back row is better than a bump if you cannot afford to miss the the flight.
United’s criterion for bumping passengers is not news — it is the same as always. But by familiarizing yourself with it, you can better position yourself to avoid an unexpected bump.