One of the biggest fears of airplane passengers is being left on the ground due to overbooking. It is a legal strategy used by airlines to ensure that all seats on the aircraft are filled. Since there is often a small percentage of passengers who do not arrive on time for their flight or who decide to cancel their trip before the departure day, leaving their seat empty, companies play with a certain margin to sell extra tickets.

Despite being a widespread risk, it is not the issue that specialized flight claims companies usually encounter the most, due to the speed with which airlines settle the matter. However, one must know how to face these situations and, above all, be aware of one’s rights. The airline is always obligated to compensate the passenger who has been left on the ground, and the most appropriate way is through compensation, not with company vouchers, as is common practice.

“The airlines oversell on all flights they operate. That’s a fact,” says Noemí Fernández, manager of Reclamio, a flight claims platform. And she adds, “People often don’t know that they have the right to file a claim and usually settle for a simple voucher, which is less than the compensations – around 100 euros. This way, they miss out on a compensation ranging from 250 to 600 euros.”

In 2023, only 4.14% of the complaints processed by Reclamio were related to the practice of overbooking. This is because airlines negotiate a quick and easy solution – compensation vouchers – which passengers accept unaware of their right to a better alternative, it points out.

There is no guide or crystal ball that can predict which flights will experience overbooking issues, but there are certain indicators that can raise red flags, according to Fernández. “The fact that the airline sends us an email offering a flight change along with a bonus is a sign. Also, if we are not allowed to check-in online, it is probably because that flight is overbooked.” With this strategy, airlines force passengers to arrive early at the airport and go to the check-in counters where, depending on the arrival order, they will be given an assigned seat or an alternative ticket due to the overbooking.

In Spain, national companies lead a large part of the overbooking cases ranking. “Vueling, Volotea, Iberia, and Ryanair are the airlines with the most incidents registered. Their focus is on low-cost flights, through which they try to sell the highest number of seats possible,” Fernández concludes. Additionally, he adds, “Vueling and Ryanair have reduced their online check-in cutoff time. They do this to narrow down the range of passengers, excluding those who will be left out.”

Flights that are at a higher risk of experiencing issues with overbooking are usually those with highly demanded destinations, especially during peak seasons. Additionally, flights operating on routes with frequent schedules, business hub routes (such as Brussels, London, Paris, Madrid, and Barcelona) during weekdays, low-cost airline flights, or flights with small aircraft are also more susceptible. The travel date is also crucial: peak seasons, weekends, and holidays are more likely to encounter this issue.