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You have a ticket for no seats.
September 17, 2006 2:05 PM   Subscribe

How can I have an airline ticket yet not have a seat?

Last time I flew on an airplane (major U.S. carrier; international flight to the U.S.) I had a surprising thing happen. When I checked in, I was told I would not be allowed on the flight since I did not have a seat.

I asked them what they meant. The woman at the counter said "You will have to fly standby, since you don't have a seat."

I showed her the ticket, which was for that flight, departing then. She said "Yes, you have a ticket for this flight, but you do not have a seat, so you can't fly."

I asked, "Well, how do I get a seat, then?". She told me "You need to contact your travel agent about that when you buy the ticket."

I had bought the ticket four months before on Expedia, which mentioned nothing about having to buy a separate ticket (in addition to your airline ticket) to be allowed on the flight.

I was sent somewhere with a dozen other people in the same boat as I was, and we were told we would be allowed fly "standby". I got on; some others did not.

I had called the airline two days before to confirm the flight and they told me all the details and mentioned nothing about buying separate "seat tickets".

So, my question is, how do I avoid this happening again, and where do I get these mysterious seat tickets?
posted by baklavabaklava to Travel & Transportation (36 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have never heard of this before. It sounds like total BS. I would call the airline and ask them to clarify their policy. Either you have a ticket or you don't.
posted by joannemerriam at 2:10 PM on September 17, 2006


I've twice booked hotels with websites and when I turned up they didn't have a room for me. So could it be that expedia screwed up? You had a ticket thru expedia, but nobody over there booked the seat for you with the airline?
posted by jamesonandwater at 2:12 PM on September 17, 2006


It sounds like the flight was overbooked and you were one of the unlucky ones.

Did the agent at the counter actually mention something called a "seat ticket"? I don't believe there is even such a thing. Perhaps she meant a boarding pass?
posted by brain cloud at 2:13 PM on September 17, 2006


jamesonandwater-- I had a paper ticket, round trip. The first part there was no problem; on the return ticket there was suddenly this "seat ticket". They acknowledged that I had a ticket and my name was on the flight manifest. So I don't think that's it.
posted by baklavabaklava at 2:14 PM on September 17, 2006


braincloud-- I don't know if she said "seat ticket"; she said "You have not booked a seat, so you can't fly". This was at check-in, where she would have given me the boarding pass.
posted by baklavabaklava at 2:16 PM on September 17, 2006


Did you check in with the airline at the airport first? I've bought tickets from Hotwire.com, and they refused to give me a seat assignment until i checked in on the day of the flight. I think that the danger with this discount method IS that they can accidently overbook the flight and you're pretty much SOL. They give priority to the customers who paid regular fees and booked the old fashioned way, or so it seems to me.
posted by theantikitty at 2:24 PM on September 17, 2006


Sounds like crap. Even if you'd had an assigned seat, they probably would have bumped you. Airlines oversell flights on the assumption that some people won't show up. Sometimes more people show up than they expected. It's just lovely if they are acting like it's your mistake.
posted by Good Brain at 2:24 PM on September 17, 2006


Sounds like the plane was overbooked.

Experience shows that about 5-10% of all passengers never show up to their flight, so to optimize earnings, airlines sell more tickets than there are actually seats on a plane. Usually, this works out just fine, or the last passengers are so late that you can just tell them that boarding is already completed. But sometimes, more people than expected show up.

I don't think there's much you can do about it legally, but I've heard stories how going into a hissy fit and threatening in a clearly audible voice that you will sue their pants off for damages that your business will suffer due to that delay and will tell everybody you know of this traumatizing experience might help.
posted by sour cream at 2:29 PM on September 17, 2006


This is standard operating procedure for many US airlines.

The problem they are trying to address is that there is some small percentage of any given flight that simply do not show up. In order to keep ticket prices down, the airline would like to send out the plane when full whenever possible. There are two ways to do this:
  1. Sell only as many tickets as there are seats on the plane, then sell only standby tickets.
  2. Oversell the flight and bump folks.
It turns out that most people don't like the idea of flying standby, so #1 results in more people flying on competitors' flights, meaning less full planes and higher prices (or less profit for the airline). So, they go with #2 and put a larger group of people effectively on standby without explict knowledge (depending on whether they read the fine print). The only people who are not on standby are those who get seat assignments in advance (although there is still some wiggle room for the airline even then).

The problem with the typical flight lies in a little calculation the airline does. Given an airplane capacity (say 100 passengers), a no-show percentage (say 5%) they calculate how many tickets to sell in order to guarantee (to a given certainty) a full plane with no bumped passengers. If one wanted to ensure the highest level of service, one would set this certainty high (say 99.99%). This may be 102 or 103 seats. However, it turns out that it is cheaper to bump someone than it is to have even a couple small number of tickets unsold. The airline pays very little to put someone on a later flight (and may actually make money if the later flight has cheaper seats). And, people have become so accustomed to this practice that very little ill-will is generated towards any given airline (most of it going to the industry in general). So they don't care as much about not bumping people.

As a result, they typically book higher then the 103 seats and simply bump folks to the next flight. Until they have some real indication that this will cost them business, they are going to keep doing that.
posted by Mr Stickfigure at 2:33 PM on September 17, 2006 [1 favorite]


As above -- a case of overbooking and involuntary bumping.
"Airlines have a legal right to overbook, while hotels do not....A hotel must find a room for everyone who has a reservation and shows up on time. An airline may be required to offer compensation for people involuntarily bumped from a flight, depending on several factors, including how long they must wait for another flight."
posted by ericb at 2:47 PM on September 17, 2006


What Mr Stickfigure said.

How close to the flight time did you check in? For people that haven't been assigned seats yet, they assign them first come, first served. I suspect you can avoid this by checking in a little earlier.
posted by Durin's Bane at 2:47 PM on September 17, 2006


I flew a couple of weeks ago (domestic U.S.), buying my ticket online about three weeks ahead of time. During the buying process, I was allowed to pick my seat assignment for the return flight, but not the outgoing -- which signalled to me that while the outgoing flight was not officially "sold out," but probably overbooked or close to it. So for that flight, I made the point of arriving extra early (even accounting for the lipstick-as-national-security-risk bullshit these days) to get a seat assignment at check-in. It worked -- I got a seat, but there were several people who had to go standby. So the next time you don't get a specific seat assignment when buying your ticket, you may want to take that as a signal to get to the airport earlier than usual.
posted by scody at 2:51 PM on September 17, 2006


This happened with me, my brothers and my parents traveling internationally in the '80s.

You are not guaranteed a place on the plane until you check in and get a boarding pass. A ticket is proof that you paid to make the journey, but the boarding pass is permission to actually get on the plane. So if the flight is full and you haven't checked in yet, when you go to do so you won't be given a boarding pass.

To avoid this in the future:
* Call the airline a few days before you travel to confirm your reservation, ask to be assigned to a specific seat if you haven't been already, double check flight times and reservation times, ask how full the plane is.
* If you have an electronic ticket, see if you can print your boarding pass from home the morning of travel. Make sure to double check your seat assignments at this time. That way you should be checked in before most other people.
* If you don't have an electronic ticket, show up at the airport earlier than the recommended time to check in.
* Even if you do have an electronic ticket, show up plenty early.
* When you're at the gate, take your ticket and boarding pass to the gate agent, and make sure all is still good.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 2:52 PM on September 17, 2006 [3 favorites]


OK, clarification then, please:

If someone buys a ticket, the airline gets its money, whether you show up or not, right? So what's the logic of overbooking again? I mean, yes, it's very sad that sometimes people don't show up, but if they've already paid for their tickets, why should the airline care if they actually occupy the seat or not?

I'm familiar with the difference between a boarding pass and a ticket for a flight: the boarding pass is your specific seating assignment. I can understand why it's first-come, first-serve when it comes to actually assigning the seats, but it sounds to me like the airline is scamming customers by overselling the seats in the first place.

I could understand it if you overbook simple reservations; since they're not actually getting any money for a reservation, it shouldn't be surprising that you get put on standby when a bunch of people who've already paid for their tickets get moved ahead of you. But to bump people who have already paid seems incredibly scammy to me.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:16 PM on September 17, 2006


If someone buys a ticket, the airline gets its money, whether you show up or not, right? So what's the logic of overbooking again? I mean, yes, it's very sad that sometimes people don't show up, but if they've already paid for their tickets, why should the airline care if they actually occupy the seat or not?

If 5% of people don't show up, then instead of selling 100 seats for a 100 hundred seat plane, they can sell 105 tickets, the plane will still leave full but they will make extra profit on the 5 extra tickets.
posted by spark at 3:23 PM on September 17, 2006


C_D, think of it this way: when someone who's paid doesn't show up, it's like the airplane suddenly has an extra seat. They want to sell that seat and get the revenue, naturally. That's assuming you're right in your assumption that they don't lose the revenue from the person who doesn't show up, which I'm sure in many cases they do (thus the distinction between refundable and non-refundable tickets).
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:28 PM on September 17, 2006


If someone buys a ticket, the airline gets its money, whether you show up or not, right? So what's the logic of overbooking again? I mean, yes, it's very sad that sometimes people don't show up, but if they've already paid for their tickets, why should the airline care if they actually occupy the seat or not?

Because there's almost certainly somebody else out there willing to pay to use that empty seat, which is another ticket's value in the airline's bank.
posted by DrJohnEvans at 3:33 PM on September 17, 2006


It's a lousy practice, but they get away with it. Just book online and check-in online the night before.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 3:35 PM on September 17, 2006


C_D, it's also important to consider that some of those people who don't show up will have different reasons for not showing. For instance, when I was in Ireland and was hospitalized with terrible food poisoning the day before I was to fly back to the US, United was able to change my flight plans, along with those of my travel companions, for no fee. We had even booked business class seats. So, the airline essentially lost out on one flight's revenues by allowing us to rebook for the next day (since each of us were technically taking up two seats - one on the scheduled flight and one on the next day). I'm very grateful that United was kind enough to let us change our plans but I do understand the business rationale for overbooking.
posted by MeetMegan at 4:08 PM on September 17, 2006


As for those who think checking in earlier will help, I might mention that I was among the first checked-in, having spent the night at the aeroport for a 2pm flight.
posted by baklavabaklava at 4:23 PM on September 17, 2006


Getting bumped on overbooked flights is not always a bad thing if you have time to spare. I got a $250 voucher from Continental once (equivalent to a free flight) when I volunteered to give up my seat. The airline is obliged to compensate you if they bump you -- and the compensation can be quite generous.

Some people even try to get bumped on purpose so that they can get a free flights and food vouchers, hence this website:
BumpTracker.
posted by ernestworthing at 4:33 PM on September 17, 2006


Airlines overbook. That is life and has been since before you were born. When you book make sure you get a seat assignment. Without one, you are flying standby. It's not an extra purchase to get a seat. It is just a reservation. Sorry you had to learn this the hard way. I once watched a woman who had a first class ticket, but no seat, get bumped on an LA to NYC flight. Oh, that was ugly. Get a seat assignment with your next ticket.
posted by caddis at 4:58 PM on September 17, 2006


baklavabaklava, it sounds like you did not have a seat assigned when you originally reserved this flight, especially since you have given no indication of having picked a seat. Was there a seat mentioned on the Expedia itinerary? If you talked to a real person, they probably would have mentioned that you would be standby; apparently Expedia didn't make this clear (assuming that the airline's story is correct).

It's always a good idea to pick a seat before flying. If you have an assigned seat you will be in a much better position if the airline overbooks. If you can't pick a seat you will know that you might be involuntarily denied boarding, although you usually won't. Not all the seats on the flight are reservable, so even if it is not overbooked some people will not have seats assigned until they get to the airport.

So the other things that the airline might use to decide depending on the airline (and which airline was this, BTW? there's no reason not to name names) are whether you are an elite member of the airline's frequent flier program, what kind of fare you bought (expensive fares can get higher priority), and yes, when you checked in. Checking in online as early as possible helps, as has been mentioned earlier.

The last thing to mention is that if you do have a seat reserve but are involuntarily denied boarding, you are entitled to cash compensation. The airlines will try to offer higher amounts of compensation in the form of vouchers because they don't like paying cash, but you can insist on (less) cash if you want. No, this does not apply if you volunteer.
posted by grouse at 5:00 PM on September 17, 2006


I was among the first checked-in, having spent the night at the aeroport for a 2pm flight.

I'm not sure if you mean you checked in the night before, or early in the morning, but if the airport you were flying from is a major hub, there's a chance that other travelers checked in for your flight before you did if they were making a connection at your airport. Plus, other travelers could have checked in online, up to 24 hours before the flight.
posted by cabingirl at 5:18 PM on September 17, 2006


instead of selling 100 seats for a 100 hundred seat plane, they can sell 105 tickets, the plane will still leave full but they will make extra profit on the 5 extra tickets

Yes, I am well aware of how they are making extra money by overbooking, that wasn't the question. The question was, how is this legal? In any other industry, the act of exchanging money—buying something—is understood to mean you are actually getting something in exchange for that cold, hard cash. Yet the airline industry is, for some reason, temporarily exempt from their half of the bargain.

It's like if I were to buy a house from a real estate developer, only when the time comes to move in, and all my stuff arrives at the home awaiting unpacking, I'm told that, actually, I'm getting a different house, and on top of that I can't move in right away but will have to stay in a motel down the street until they're ready for me because all the homes are already occupied.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:22 PM on September 17, 2006


always check in curbside with skycabs. be nice to them and ask if they can help you get an emergency exit row seat or something like that. the secret here is that they do have the power to give you specific seats (at least with american and the likes) and everyone who does not use them will have to change/get their seats at the gate - which is usually much later.

do tip them, it's a tough job.
posted by krautland at 5:33 PM on September 17, 2006


grouse: nothing was mentioned on Expedia, and there was no option to choose a seat. The airline was Delta, which I didn't mention earlier because I didn't remember. I have no problem with choosing a seat beforehand, but I wasn't presented with that option. Also, what is the point of calling to confirm with the airline "72 hours prior to departure" if they are not going to make note of the fact that you don't have a place on the plane? On the contrary, the fellow said I was "good to go". Perhaps he meant "good to go to the ticket counter, but not on the plane".

caddis: I'm not sure how long it's been going on is relevant. One would think, however, that I would be told they had scammed ("overbooked") me when I called to confirm, or that they would mention something about overbooking at check-in instead of "buying a seat". Or, indeed, if, anywhere along the four-month timeline, they had presented the opportunity to buy a seat, explained the necessity of doing so, or in any way notified me.

civil_dis I agree with: I'm unsure why I'm not able to work this way in day-to-day business transactions: for example, surely bouncing cheques is nothing more than overbooking your account.
posted by baklavabaklava at 5:47 PM on September 17, 2006


You bought the ticket four months in advance. Most major airlines do not actually assign seats until 90 days in advance, so you couldn't be given a seat assignment at that time. When I buy that far out (fwiw, I'm a top tier frequent flyer on one of the biggest airlines) I mark my calendar for 90 days before the flight, then call the airline and get a seat. At some point, they close seating assignments, usually when they've preassigned 60% of the available seats. It's not rock solid, but they want it to be. After that, you're told to get your seat assignment at the airport on the day of departure. They want to hold on to choice aisle and window seats for people (well, like me, business travelers) who book late and pay much much higher fares, and expect a seat assignment. Trust me, when I pay $1200 for the same trip you've paid $200 for, the airline wants to give me a preassigned seat. They want me to come back soon with another $1200. Never wait, for all the reasons discussed above, such as the overbooking; demand a seat assignment if you are some time out from your flying date. Usually (I'm sure many can cite exceptions) if you have a preassigned seat, you won't be bumped nearly as easily as those who don't.
posted by bigmuffindaddy at 5:49 PM on September 17, 2006


krautland, I did not see "skycabs" at the Rome aeroport and I don't think Roman taxi drivers have the authority to change peoples' seats on Delta flights. I also don't have enough money to tip people to let me on a plane I already have a ticket for.
posted by baklavabaklava at 5:51 PM on September 17, 2006


how is this legal?

14 CFR 250. Not to mention the fact that it is in your contract with the airline, and you are notified in writing with your ticket. You might try reading all those notices with your ticket, you might miss some other bugaboo.

It's like if I were to buy a house from a real estate developer...

...and you engaged in a contract allowing the real estate developer to pull out of the contract but paying you a penalty if he does so.
posted by grouse at 5:51 PM on September 17, 2006


One would think, however, that I would be told they had scammed ("overbooked") me when I called to confirm, or that they would mention something about overbooking at check-in instead of "buying a seat". Or, indeed, if, anywhere along the four-month timeline, they had presented the opportunity to buy a seat, explained the necessity of doing so, or in any way notified me.

One would think, but one would think wrongly. Also, it is not a question of buying a seat. You bought a fare. It is a question of reserving a seat. Buying a ticket does not imply that they have assigned you a seat. Getting the seat costs no extra money. Perhaps we are just arguing semantics here. In any event, this is the way it works, and they just expect you to know that. When you don't fly often it sucks to learn the system the hard way.
posted by caddis at 6:02 PM on September 17, 2006


baklavabaklava: I really doubt they said anything about "buying a seat." You can't buy a seat, only a ticket, which does not guarantee you a seat on a particular flight. Reconfirming is usually to check whether the schedule has been changed, but I think they should have checked on your seat assignment then. Perhaps you would like to send a complaint. The airline will probably apologize for not checking on your seat assignment then and send you some boilerplate about their overbooking policy.

I'm unsure why I'm not able to work this way in day-to-day business transactions: for example, surely bouncing cheques is nothing more than overbooking your account.

Well, there are bank accounts which have interest free overdraft. You just have to agree on it beforehand.

krautland and baklavabaklava: That's "skycap."
posted by grouse at 6:08 PM on September 17, 2006


Getting the seat costs no extra money

Actually, many airlines will charge you a fee if you want to pre-book your seating assignment.
posted by antifuse at 1:13 AM on September 18, 2006


many airlines will charge you a fee if you want to pre-book your seating assignment.

Not any of the U.S. majors, though. And in fact, I'm not aware of any U.S.-based airline that will do this—either you can do it free or you can't do it at all.
posted by grouse at 1:26 AM on September 18, 2006


Grouse, thanks for the link, that explains it, esp. section 250.11—Public disclosure of deliberate overbooking and boarding procedures.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:27 AM on September 18, 2006


Not any of the U.S. majors, though. And in fact, I'm not aware of any U.S.-based airline that will do this—either you can do it free or you can't do it at all.

I believe a few of the US budget airlines, such as AirTran, make you pay a little more for your ticket if you want a pre-assigned seat.
posted by General Zubon at 11:42 AM on September 18, 2006


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