Tuesday, November 30, 2004

An open question for the airlines

Here’s a math problem for you:

A typical Boeing 727 holds about 189 passengers. You can seat one passenger per seat. How many seats can you sell per flight?

This is a trick question apparently. The airlines seem to think the answer is 300 tickets. Their computers like to play some sort of airline version of Russian Roulette and sell many more seats than an airplane has in hopes that enough people will pay and not show up so they will have room on the airplane for everyone at the gate.

It is a mystery to me why the airlines overbook flights. I can understand reserving a few seats for people bumped from other flights. But I don’t understand overbooking a flight.

We went to Boise for Thanksgiving. The flight there was uneventful. Security wasn’t bad. We ended up with two hours to kill before the flight. The trip was fun. It was good to see my family. There were no political or religious discussions. My niece and nephew still talk to me despite the fact that they are rapidly approaching teenagedom.

We dropped off the Dodge Magnum the car rental person had convinced me to rent. It looked like a souped up hearse, but it was kind of fun to drive. We had checked in online so all we had to do was drop our bags off. That’s when the first ticket agent asked us if we were willing to give up our seats. “Give up our seats, why?” I asked. She gave me that smile that loosely masks disgust that airline employees have perfected and said, “The flight is overbooked and we are looking for volunteers to give up their seats and take a later flight. We’ll give you free tickets for anywhere Alaska or Horizon fly if we bump you.”

There it was, the free ticket offer. The catch….there was no guarantee when that later flight would be. We had tickets to Sunday’s Seahawk game and Tess had to be back to teach on Monday. We declined the offer and proceeded to the gate.

Well, they must have really been overbooked because the ticket agents at the gate were doing the hard sell over the loudspeakers. They were pleading with people to give up their seats and accept free tickets, hotel rooms, food. I was waiting for them to offer free pony rides.

Call me jaded, but a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush really applies to airline flights around the holidays. We watched the agents lure college kids up to the counter and coax them with free flights to Cancun and Cabo San Lucas. They found their victims and the rest of us waited for our delayed flight. Because the other mystery of the airlines are flight delays. They are based on the airlines own little chaos theory. Because all of the delays this Thanksgiving were apparently caused by snow in Reno. Oh my God, snow in Reno! That’s as rare as rain in Seattle. But apparently they had a little bit of trouble with radar equipment at the tower that lands planes. And our flight attendant told us they ran out of the liquid they use to de-ice planes. Bottomline was the plane on our flight was delayed in Reno on its way to Seattle before it came to Boise to return to Seattle.

Anyway, we got on the plane an hour and a half late and it didn’t look overbooked (apparently they got quite a few volunteers). The flight from Boise to Seattle is barely an hour. So, all and all, we spent almost four hours in the airport to make an hour flight to Seattle. I guess it beats driving 9 hours and dealing with mountain passes.

But back to my original question to the airlines: Why can’t you simply sell the number of seats you have on the airplane and leave it at that? Wouldn’t it make everyone’s lives easier?

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