If you’ve ever been kicked off a flight due to the airline overselling, you’ll already know just how frustrating and inconvenient it can be. Well, today we’ve heard it all, as it transpires that Air Canada agents were instructed to mislead passengers about overselling on flights.
A former employee blew the whistle to CBC news this week, stating that he and his colleagues were instructed by Air Canada to mislead passengers in regards to overselling. He claims they were told to reassure passengers everything was fine, when they knew for a fact that person wouldn’t be getting on the aircraft.
“It’s never fun to have to lie to people. I had to tell people over and over again that they were gonna get on the plane, when I knew that they might not.” – Former Air Canada employee
The former agent says that Air Canada mislead passengers all the time. He claims a flight could be oversold whether it’s within the US, domestic in Canada or a long haul international route. He says he quit his job because he couldn’t take the stress of constantly misleading passengers.
He recalled to CBC news an incident involving a honeymooning couple who didn’t have assigned seats. They were on their way to Hawaii and he was forced to reassure them that everything would be OK.
“I told them they had nothing to be worried about, and it absolutely killed me. The chances of them making it on [the flight] were slim to none.”
A second opinion
Since the revelation from the former employee came to light, a second employee, one who still works for Air Canada (training staff in misleading passengers) also came forward. He expanded on the comments saying,
“You can’t put up with confrontation all day long. If someone has ‘GTE’ [for "gate”] on their boarding pass, it means they don’t have a seat. But if you explain that to them, they’ll get upset. So just send them to the gate. I train people to dupe passengers.”
However, not all feedback has supported the complaint from these two employees.
I worked for Canadian Airlines and then Air Canada. They must have changed the training because this is not something I was ever told to do. There is always the person that will pass on a problem but most agents I worked with were conscientious and honest.
— Vivian Lewis (@vbs_lewis) February 11, 2019
I was give GTE on my ticket once, @AirCanada staff was very open that I probably wouldn’t get on the flight. Very frustrating but they didn’t hide it. Complete lack of empathy was frustrating part.
— Andrew Fogliato (@AndrewFogliato) February 11, 2019
But, for every positive comment, there’s whole heap of negative ones too…
Told by AC agent on the phone that my flight was cancelled today and just found out it actually wasn’t. It flew. They bumped me by cancelling my booking and now I have to pay for a new flight and hotel. Can’t reach anyone in customer service. I feel DUPED
— Tessa Nicholl (@TessaNicholl) February 13, 2019
They straight up lied to my daughter after denying her a seat she had paid for.The Air Canada employee then sent her to the other side of the airport for a random security check.When she got to security they told her a random security check doesn’t exist. Took 2 months to resolve
— Honisoit (@H0NIS0IT) February 11, 2019
My teen son was bumped, ignored and bumped again by AC. He spent more than 36 hrs in Vancouver airport. We finally had to pay for a business seat upgrade to get him home. Our family will never fly AC again. Never.
— Zanzibar & Grill (@zanzibar_grill) February 11, 2019
What do Air Canada say?
CBC contacted Air Canada for reply, and they were quick to point out that it’s a common practice among all airlines, not just theirs. Spokesperson Angela Mah commented that it is a recognised industry practice by carriers and has been ruled as acceptable by the CTA on at least two occasions. She continued to say:
“Overselling is very carefully managed and… accounts for less than 1% of passengers booked with only a fraction of these resulting in denied boarding.”
She said that more than 80% of Air Canada’s flights in 2018 suffered through no-shows, with some routes running a no-show rate of close to 14%. Out of the 51 million customers Air Canada flew in 2018, the CTA received just 106 complaints about being denied boarding, equating to around 0.0002% of their customers.
Why are Air Canada overselling flights anyway?
Overselling flights is not limited to Air Canada by any means. It’s a very common practice in the US and in other aviation markets around the world, driven by powerful statistics and, of course, money.
Moving more than 900m passengers around North America every year is not an easy task; in fact, it’s a logistical nightmare. With profits increasingly under pressure from intense competition, it’s crucial for airlines to operate every flight at as near to capacity as possible.
However, an average of 5% of flyers won’t turn up for their trip, and sometimes that number can be as high as 15%. That would make for a very expensive journey from the carriers point of view, and in an industry that can often run at a profit margin as small as 1%, it’s a chance they just cannot take.
Airlines increasingly use ever more intelligent software and models to predict how many people will turn up for a flight. Angela Mah explained how Air Canada manage overselling:
“We use extensive historical data and complex algorithms to project the ‘no-show factor for select flights; where there are opportunities to reduce lost revenue by conservatively overselling without denied boarding resulting. Overselling is very carefully managed and in fact, accounts for only one percent of passengers booked, with only a fraction of those cases resulting in denied boarding.”
During Super Bowl season, for example, airlines can predict that almost every booking for the flight heading to the venue will be used. The same happens at Thanksgiving and Christmas, when people are committed to going to see their families.
But, on your average travel day, people may miss flights for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it’s a traffic delay, a family emergency or illness that prevents them going. That creates a liability for the airline (if the ticket is flexible) as that passenger could turn up at any time, needing a seat on an otherwise full flight.
Guaranteeing everyone will fly would mean only selling 180 tickets on a 200 seat aircraft, which doesn’t make any financial sense at all. The alternative is to oversell ever so slightly, based on the information they have about that particular trip. As a result, around 46,000 US travellers are bumped from their flights every year.
But it’s not all bad, as those willing to take a bump are often well rewarded for their inconvenience. Compensation can include perks such as a night in a hotel, hundreds of dollars in travel vouchers or even cold, hard cash (that is, if they can actually get the money).
In fact, some people make it their mission to get bumped off their flight just to enjoy the airline’s attempts at making it up to them.