A CBC story has gone viral in which two anonymous Air Canada employees share that their airline instructs employees to “dupe” passengers in danger of being bumped from oversold flights into thinking that everything will be fine. My response: there’s a difference between duping and fear-mongering.
Airlines, including Air Canada, routinely overbook flights. It’s what airlines do because the vast majority of the time it works just fine. Overbooking flights leads to lower fares because airlines can sell more seats, knowing that there is a statistical no-show rate that is quite dependable.
But sometimes the calculation backfires. Sometimes too many seats are sold and everyone shows up. When that happens, not everyone is going to get a seat on the flight. Usually the passengers who are involuntarily denied boarding are the ones who do not have a seat assignment.
One Air Canada ticket counter agent complained, “I had to tell people over and over again that they were gonna get on the plane, when I knew that they might not.”
Another ticket agent who trains new agents stated:
I say to the new hired agents, “You can’t put up with confrontation all day long. If someone has ‘GTE’ [for “gate”] on their boarding pass, it means they don’t have a seat. But if you explain that to them, they’ll get upset. So just send them to the gate.” I train people to dupe passengers.
That’s Not Duping
There’s a difference between deliberately misleading and avoiding unnecessary scare-mongering.
I have been on so many “oversold” flights that went out with many open seats. On busy days, most flights are oversold…yet almost invariably you’ll notice that at least a few standbys are accommodated. That’s after all those “GTE” passengers are given seats. On Air Canada, passengers must wait for seat assignments if only preferred economy class seats are left. Or if only business class seats remain. Those GTE cards do not mean the flight is even necessarily oversold. I’ve been flying over 100,000 miles/year for over a decade and in the last several years that number has climbed above 250,000 miles. It is so rare that I actually witness a bump. So rare, I might add, that I have not seen one in at least five years.
Air Canada uses a complex algorithm to gauge flight risk and determine how much overselling, if any, is appropriate. Air Canada flew 51 million customers in 2017-18 and overbooked approximately 1% of passengers…about 510,000. But with “several million” no-shows per year and cash payments of up to 1350CAD for denied boarding, very few people are actually kicked off a flight. It doesn’t make financial sense. Volunteers can be incentivized through miles or vouchers and frankly even volunteers are rarely needed.
Therefore, to scare people into thinking they might get bumped off when the vast majority of the time they are perfectly fine strikes me as a foolish policy.
I found this whole CBC report to be yellow journalism at its finest. There is no vast conspiracy to “dupe” Air Canada passengers…or any airline passengers. Rather, airlines wisely understand that overbooking is part of the business model and that often leads to situations in which passengers will not receive seat assignments until they reach the gate. Rather than scare people into fearing they will be denied boarding, Air Canada knows that the math is on its side. It is a very rare day when passengers are actually denied boarding against their will. Very, very rare.
Is Air Canada “duping” passengers or just playing it smart?
image: Air Canada