With passport in hand and plenty of time to spare I walked up to the check-in desk and handed over my booking details, feeling rather pleased with myself for my punctuality. Next stop, Helsinki. And that’s when I had a nasty surprise.
The flight was overbooked by five people, the check-in assistant explained, and because I hadn’t had the foresight to check in online, I would be one of the unlucky few who would have to take the next available flight. In the small print on my ticket, he went on, it was clearly elucidated that the airline makes no guarantee that passengers will definitely get on the flight they think they’ve booked. You don’t pay for a seat on a particular plane – rather, you pay for the journey, the A-to-B, and when you make that journey is entirely at the airline’s discretion. Well, that was the gist of it.
Now, for the record, I must admit that this time the airline’s algorithms worked perfectly and exactly five people ended up missing that flight to Helsinki – meaning that yours truly did in fact get on his booked flight. But still, it raised the question: since when do algorithms matter more than customer service? And isn’t it a tiny bit dishonest to convince passengers they have a seat on a certain flight when really they don’t?
After all, it isn’t like the airlines are losing money when they fly with empty seats. If three people fail to turn up for a fully booked flight, the airline still keeps its money; their ticket isn’t refunded. But for airlines, an empty seat is a missed opportunity. If they overbook a flight, they essentially create revenue out of thin air – literally. They count on poor, distressed passengers missing their flights and paying through the nose for an on-the-day ticket. And they accept that occasionally people will have to be “bumped” onto a later flight.
Obviously air travel is a brutal industry with fierce competition and extreme downward pressures on prices. But I’d like to see an airline take the higher ground and give up algorithms for all-round good service. That means not putting passengers through the stress of thinking they’ve been “bumped” and not leaving them with a bitter taste in their mouths.
I was lucky. Other passengers missed out and I snuck onto the plane in their place... But that’s hardly the point.
Matt Alagiah is Monocle’s associate editor.