Is there a pecking order for overbooked flights?

Simon Calder, also known as The Man Who Pays His Way, has been writing about travel for The Independent since 1994. In his weekly opinion column, he explores a key travel issue – and what it means for you.

Overbooking. When handled right, it works a treat for everyone: airlines (more revenue), the environment (fuller planes) and passengers (assuming carriers throw money at the problem when they are caught out). Agreeing to travel a few hours later in the US, from Salt Lake City to Long Beach, earned me $600 (£480) from Delta Airlines, which paid for the whole transatlantic itinerary. But what about when it isn’t done right?

Most airlines (not Ryanair) routinely sell more tickets than there are seats available because they know from experience that a certain number of passengers are likely to “no show”. Sometimes, though, their cunning plan to make more money by selling, say, 105 per cent of the seats on board goes wrong: everyone shows up.

The law, at least for UK and EU airlines, is clear about what happens next. The carrier must ask for volunteers. In theory, no one should ever be offloaded against their will. The airline is required to ask passengers if they are prepared to travel later. The incentive – whether cash, a free flight, an upgrade the following day or a combination of all three – should be progressively increased until there are enough volunteers. In the US, they are very well practised at this; in the UK, not so good.

When involuntary offloads start, there is at least an informal order of priority.

Anyone who arrives at the gate even one minute too late is likely to find they are off the plane if it is overbooked; this is the cost-free way for airlines to address an “oversell situation”, and is one reason why you should be at the gate at the specified time even if you are darn sure the flight will not be boarding.

That’s the easy part. After that, there are certain categories of people who airlines will not want to offload. For a “network carrier” such as Air France, KLM or Lufthansa, passengers heading only to Paris, Amsterdam or Frankfurt are much more likely to be offloaded than someone with a long-haul connection.

Low-cost easyJet, on the other hand, does not wish to mess up the business of its “daughter” company, easyJet Holidays. So if you have booked a package with the firm, you are likely to be allowed to board.

Frequent flyers may well escape the bonfire of the boarding cards because the airline regards them as important passengers they don’t want to cheese off.

I feel very strongly that anyone with mobility or mental health issues, or families travelling with children, should always be allowed to travel. I hope that most airline ground staff think the same, though sadly I have seen cases when this has not happened.

The final, and probably most deployed strategy, is simply: people who checked in last. These will generally be travellers who (like me) prefer not to pay for advance seat selection, etc. Perhaps the thinking goes like this: as with a theatre or football ticket, if you have been assigned seat 15D, you are in the mindset of “I have bought that specific space, and will be exceedingly cheesed off if it is taken away from me”.

But those of us who are simply told, “we can’t assign your seat, please ask staff at the airport”, are probably already half-expecting something to go wrong.

I hope my theory is incorrect because it would suggest an arbitrary and unthinking attitude to turning away people who’ve set their hearts on a trip. But I fear it is the path of least resistance for hard-pressed ground staff whose airlines do not, it seems to me, always adhere to the passengers’ rights rules. I hope the Civil Aviation Authority will take some interest and oblige airlines to throw money at a problem of their own making.