How the top 5 Airlines Handle Overbooked Flights

Full airplane

Customer service in the travel industry has changed dramatically over the past few decades, and not always in ways that are positive. 

 Just look at the news for the past month.  Between the United Airlines fiasco with removing Dr. Dao from an overbooked flight, to more recently Delta and the dogs dying because they were left on the tarmac, then placed in a cargo hold that was too hot based on their own guidelines.  American Airlines issue with the Employee yanking a stroller out of a mother’s hands hitting her and almost hitting her baby.  It seems that the airlines are spending as much time (and money) lately doing damage control, as they are advertising their services.  

Regarding the over-booking issue that some of the airlines are having.  The reasons given behind over-booking flights is that there are passengers, for a variety of valid reasons, do not make their flight.  The airlines lose money on a flight if someone does not board, so they overbook by a certain percentage to build a cushion for that contingency.  Fortunately for the passengers, there are policies in place to protect us if an airline overbooks, and they do not have the anticipated number of missed passengers.  

In light of these recent news headlines, I reached out to 5 airlines to get clarification on their overbooking policy.  I thought I would use this opportunity to see how the airlines handled customer service issues.  It was an education…

The five airlines chosen were:

-        United
-        American
-        Southwest
-        Delta
-        Frontier 

I searched each of their websites for a way to contact their customer service teams by email, and immediately hit roadblocks.  FAQ pages were no help on my search, and when searching for the topic, most of their keywords did not include the words “Overbooked.” I did finally find information using “Oversold” Or in Delta’s case “Suspended Flight FAQs” 

As for the contact us pages, there were some consistencies between each companies’ websites.  United, American and Delta wanted personal information such as my address and phone number just to ask a question.  Frontier’s site was easier, they had a simple “Ask a Question” window, and I had to confirm I was not a bot. Meanwhile, Southwest would not permit any question to be asked without a flight number included on their contact us page. 

I submitted my questions, and only American Airlines had an automated “Thank you, your question is important to us” email sent out.  None of the other companies confirmed that they ever received my question. Within 24 hours I received a call from Rosie with American, and she directed me to where I could find the policy on their website, as well as answered some additional questions I had about the process of rescheduling bumped passengers. As far as this exercise was concerned, American came in first.  They immediately acknowledged my email, and got in touch with me within 24 hours.

Delta was the second, I received an email from Steven Sheldon, Online Customer Support Desk within four days.  He fully outlined the processes Delta had for Oversold flights and how to best manage any inconvenience of dealing with an overbooked flight. (His tip was to check in with the airlines between 24 hours and 1 ½ hours in advance of your flight) 

Southwest Airlines has their overbook policy outlined in their customer FAQ board.  On the downside, the email a question page required me to input a specific flight just to ask a question.  Southwest prefers customers direct their questions to the customer board forums they have.  That being said, there are a lot of questions that have been answered by what appears to be Southwest staff on the board.  The response I saw on the forums were within 3 hours of the question being asked. 

Then there was United, this was as easy as you would expect United to be.  Which wasn’t very.  I had to go through their website and provide a lot of personal information (to include my physical address) to ask any questions.  At the time, I am writing this article, I have received absolutely no response from either Southwest, United, or Frontier.  Not even a “We received your question” automated response.  While I am not surprised about United, since they are more than likely under a companywide review of how customer communications are handled, Southwest has built their entire reputation on customer service and satisfaction.  

My research didn’t reassure me that a $400 plus purchase would be guaranteed or provide any guidelines to what they may do in the case of an oversold flight. At least I have heard Amtrak is expanding their services. 



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