I'm not going to pretend to understand the complexity that goes into running an airline. There are, literally, thousands of moving parts. On some level, however, the idea goes something like this: You sell tickets on flights between cities based on some kind of schedule. People buy those tickets, and in exchange for the money they pay, they expect to end up on a plane flying to wherever it is they wanted to go.
The part I've never fully understood is why airlines sell more tickets than they actually have seats. I'm sure it makes sense to someone with a spreadsheet somewhere. Probably it has to do with the fact that some percentage of people don't actually show up for flights, even though they paid money for a ticket. Perhaps some of them bought refundable tickets and changed their plans.
Regardless, oversold flights are a thing--especially now as airlines cut back their schedules. If a flight full of people gets canceled, those people have to be rebooked on other flights, making those flights oversold.
Obviously, a plane with 200 seats can't hold more than 200 people. If you sold 210 tickets, and everyone who bought a ticket shows up for the flight, some of them aren't going anywhere. Ten of them, to be exact.
In that case, the airline has to provide compensation to those people it denies boarding and has to put them on a later flight--which will probably also be overbooked if this keeps happening.
Also, those people will probably be very upset that they bought a ticket, drove to the airport, waited in line to go through security, and showed up at the gate, but aren't on the plane when it leaves. That can definitely ruin a vacation or a business trip or a Monday morning.
Really, the last thing you want when you're running a business is people who are very mad because they had a terrible experience. In this case, they're mostly mad because you made a promise and you didn't keep it.
Airlines try to prevent that by convincing some people on a flight to give up their seats and take a later flight in exchange for some form of compensation. It might start at a few hundred dollars, depending on how much later the flight is and how many people it needs, and go up if there are no takers.
On a recent Delta Air Lines flight, my family and I were traveling to Minneapolis to catch a flight to Alaska. As we sat on the plane waiting to leave the gate, the announcement overhead explained that the flight was apparently oversold and they were looking for eight volunteers. In exchange for their seats, Delta was offering $10,000 cash. "If you have Apple Pay, you'll even have the money right now," the flight attendant said.
Ten. Thousand. Dollars.
On the one hand, you can certainly make the case that $10,000 is a lot of money to give people for the inconvenience of taking a later flight. I think, for the most part, that's correct. It is a lot of money, and if the later flight still gets you wherever you were headed in a reasonable amount of time, it seems like you'd be silly not to take it.
(Spoiler alert: We did not take it for reasons I'm not going to get into because my wife is still not pleased about it.)
Look, I get that there are a lot of variables that go into deciding how much money to offer in a situation like this. I would argue that $10,000 seems like a lot, and in all of the flying I do, I've never seen it before. Several people I spoke to who also travel a lot had never heard of it before.
Really, though, the principle isn't complicated at all. Your job is to take care of your customers. Sometimes bad things happen, sure, but when you overpromise, the solution should never be to underdeliver. The solution should be to go above and beyond to make it right. That's basically what Delta did in this case.
Yes, $10,000 is a lot of money, but it was clearly better than forcing eight people to miss their connections and ruining their plans. The people who volunteered did the math and decided that it was worth it to change their plans because, obviously, that is a lot of money.
I also know there are probably a lot of people who have had bad experiences with airlines, especially as they try to better manage their schedule this summer by cutting flights. Over the weekend, U.S. airlines canceled more than 2,000 flights. If you figure there were an average of 150 people on each of those flights, that's 300,000 broken promises.
It seems that's a part of doing business as an airline, but delivering a bad experience doesn't have to be. The amazing thing, as Delta proved on this flight, is taking care of customers always pays off.