What can I do if I get bumped off my flight due to overbooking?

By Dean Brainin.

Overbooking refers to when the total number of seats booked by customers for a specific flight exceeds the total number of seats available on that flight. But why does this happen?

It is a common practice in South Africa and worldwide for airlines to deliberately overbook flights. Airlines do this to ensure that when the aeroplane takes off, there are no empty seats available. Having a fully occupied aircraft means maximizing profits, and overselling tickets is the best way to achieve that. Moreover, overbooking can help the airline keep costs low.

According to Chris Zwiegenthal, the Head of the Airlines Association of Southern Africa, “the overall aim of overbooking is so airlines can maximize revenue around load factors as well as avoid having empty seats that are either not used due to no-shows as well as being able to accommodate passengers on standby who urgently need to travel”.

Worldwide, airlines have conducted their research on overbooking flights from a financial perspective. In turn, airlines overbook flights as they are almost certain that a percentage of passengers will not show up for their flight and, further, will not inform the airline of their cancellation. Moreover, airlines expect several passengers to board their plane, coming from a connecting flight that may have been delayed or cancelled. For this reason, airlines sell more tickets than there are seats available to guarantee revenue.

The question is then, what happens if all the passengers arrive, the flight is overbooked, and I get bumped off?

For a start, consumers in South Africa are fortunately protected in these situations by the Consumer Protection Act 68 of 2008 (“The CPA”). The CPA protects consumers against over-selling and overbooking goods and services. Section 47(2)(a) of the CPA expressly states that:

“A supplier must not accept payment or other consideration for any goods or services if the supplier has no reasonable basis to assert an intention to supply those goods or provide those services”.

The CPA prohibits the overbooking of flights because a supplier or service provider may not accept payment of goods or services that do not exist.

So, what are your rights in terms of the CPA?

If you have been bumped off your flight due to an airline overbooking, Section 47(3)(a) and (b) of the CPA outlines a consumer’s right of recourse and sets out what the supplier must do and is as follows:

“The supplier must:

  • Refund to the consumer the amount, if any, paid in respect of that commitment or reservation, together with interest at the prescribed rate from the date on which the amount was paid until the date of reimbursement; and
  • In addition, compensate the consumer for costs directly incidental to the supplier’s breach of the contract, except to the extent that subsection (5) provides otherwise.

It is important to calculate your costs incidental to the airline overbooking your flight accurately and keep documented proof thereof if you intend to institute a possible damages claim against the airline.

Suppose the airline bumped you from your flight because of overbooking but can offer you an alternative flight shortly after that. In that case, you may not unreasonably refuse such a request, and doing so will result in you having difficulty getting a refund.

It is clear that despite the CPA prohibiting airlines from overbooking flights, it remains a common practice amongst airlines to maximize revenue. Suppose the airline does not offer you an alternative plan or refuses to furnish compensation in any form. In that case, you should seek the assistance of an attorney to enforce your rights and ensure you are not taken advantage of by the airline.

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