Why airlines can legally bump passengers, and why it’s all your fault.

Nothing pisses me off more than getting bumped off a flight by an airline. And not just because sleeping on airport benches is hell on my bursitis. But as it turns out, there’s a pretty good reason for the practice.

Nothing pisses me off more than getting bumped off a flight by an airline. And not just because sleeping on airport benches is hell on my bursitis. But as it turns out, there’s a pretty good reason for the practice.

Nothing pisses me off more than getting bumped off a flight by an airline. And not just because sleeping on airport benches is hell on my bursitis. But as it turns out, there’s a pretty good reason for the practice. 

I mean, how do airlines get away with over-selling their planes? Nobody else can do that and still stay in business. Imagine if movie theaters did that. There’d be riots in the streets. Or at least angry rants on Rotten Tomatoes…

I wondered how they could get away with it, so I looked into it (i.e., I Googled it).

Turns out, the reason airlines can bump paying passengers off their flights is because of people like you: You know, cheap, penny-pinching bastards.

Sure, people like you could pay more for a guaranteed seat, but you don’t want to, do you? No, because you’re a skinflint. And that stinginess makes you choose the cheaper flight. But that choice buys you more than just nonexistent legroom and prison-like amenities: it also buys your legal rights to be treated like a human being. 

A recent “Explain Like I’m 5” on reddit.com clears up those tricky airline policies with an analogy so simple even someone as poor as you can understand them. 

In law there is something called an efficient breach of contract. Imagine you are a chair maker. You have a contract with someone for a nice chair that they are to pick up on Wednesday. On Tuesday someone runs into your shop, announces they are holding a vital meeting for a million dollar deal, and require a chair no matter the cost. You sell them the chair for ten times its value and when your customer comes in on Wednesday you appologize that you do not have a chair for them and pay whatever damages they have – probably their damages are limited to the loss of use of the chair for a few days so a few dollars. This is an efficient breach — the chair maker is better off, the customer who was supposed to have a chair has been fully compensated, and the guy who desperately needed a chair gets one.

Same thing with over-booking a plane. 95% of the time it is win-win for everyone involved. The airlines make more money on the planes which allows them to reduce prices generally (airlines are fairly low margin businesses), the customer who didn’t show up is no worse off, and the guy who got the extra seat gets to where he is going. In the 5% of the time when someone actually gets bumped they make it up to them (usually they do an auction going into the plane asking who will get off for 200 bucks or something — i.e. trying to find someone who would profit by the bump and volunteer to be paid for their delay).

So the next time you get bumped, remember that the only reason they’re doing it to you is because someone else offered them more money and because you can’t really do anything about it — you already signed away your rights for anything other than $200 in “airline bucks” as compensation. (And did I mention that they expire? Yeah, they do.)