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Come fly with me…no, you can’t

Imagine the scene: you go to collect your daughter’s wedding dress – the big day is this coming weekend. You’ve selected it from dozens you’ve seen, and you’ve paid for it. But when you get to the shop, the assistant shrugs her shoulders and says: “Sorry, we had quite a run on stock today, so we thought we’d sell it to someone else.”

You’d obviously make some comment along the lines of “these things happen” and that you’d simply choose something else.

The affordable low-cost model, which has worked successfully in Europe and Asia by contributing significantly to economic growth of those regions. Credit: REUTERS

No, I don’t think so. I’d guess you’d leap over the counter and shove a fistful of tulle into the face of the sales assistant.

Let’s paint a similar scenario: it’s your grandfather’s 80th birthday and after weeks of phoning and planning you have somehow managed to get the entire family together – all 15 of you – to throw the old man a dinner party at his favourite buffet restaurant.

It’s a large table, so you’ve paid upfront for everything except the drinks, but when the family arrives at the restaurant, the maitre d’ shrugs and says: “We had a bit of a queue outside, so we broke up your table and seated other people instead.” Your response would typically be: “No worries, we’ll just get some Nando’s on the way home.”

No, I think not. Instead you’d bury a skewer in the maitre d’s chest and flambé his nose hairs.

Such a reaction to being told that something you had specifically selected and paid for had casually been given to someone else would be reasonable. In fact, so much so it could be the core content of a reality show called Consumer Vengeance!

Of course, you may argue that these kinds of things don’t happen often enough to provide sufficient material for a TV show.

Except they do, and more importantly they occur quite regularly in a single industry: airline travel. It’s called overbooking.

It works a little like this: if a flight between Durban and Joburg carries 150 passengers, the airline will take around 175 bookings for that flight. They can do this for two reasons: first, because they know that a certain number of people will most probably not pitch up for the flight and, second, because they’re allowed to.

Experience has taught airlines that every flight of every route has a certain number of no-shows – people who have booked a seat, haven’t paid and who cancel at the last minute or simply don’t show up, and people who book and pay for a seat but who for some reason choose not to fly.

Each airline has its own carefully protected mathematic algorithm for calculating this number, but generally it takes into consideration: scheduled elements, such as the route and time of the flight; regular variations, such as public holidays and seasonal weather; and intermittent fluctuations, such as special events and dramatic weather changes.

They even throw in the occasional curve ball, such as the cancellation of another airline’s entire flight for technical reasons.

As such, most of the time planes depart with the number of no-shows balanced out by the extra number of passengers booked.

At worst, a handful of passengers are left behind having agreed to take a later flight in return for an upgrade or a voucher to be used at a later date. At best, a number of seats have been paid for more than once.

The airlines would confidently say this is a vibrant business model. Some would say it’s just greed.

However, there’s something the airlines always overlook: passengers are human.

Whereas people can choose to amble around a mall window-shopping, no one boards a plane to go cloud-gazing and unless they’re going on holiday and see the flight as part of the experience, most people see flying as a necessary evil.

It’s like having a Pap smear, only a little more cramped.

People fly because they need to be at a particular place on a particular day, so they book a specific flight at a specific time. Also, with more and more people booking online, more and more flights are paid for up front.

This means when someone arrives at a check-in counter, they want to be in a seat on the flight that they have paid for.

Of course, as everyone knows, if you mix a dollop of maths, a reliance on technology and a dose of corporate greed, and throw in some human nature, sooner or later something’s going to go horribly wrong.

Occasionally airlines get thrown two curve balls at the same time and everyone who booked and paid for a seat arrives to catch the flight.

They all want to be where they want to be when they want to be, and they certainly don’t want to be given as a reason why they can’t a shrugging ground-staff member saying: “Sorry, the flight was overbooked.”

Note: they never say “we overbooked the flight”, only that the flight “was overbooked”, as if it were somehow the passengers’ fault.

So here’s my suggestion for how to make sure you’re always on the flight you’ve booked and paid for: when you check-in, tell them you hope the flight isn’t overbooked, then show them a plastic bag containing a skewer, a half-jack of brandy and a disposable lighter.

Then say you think it’s best that you don’t take it on board, and would they mind terribly disposing of it for you.

My guess is that you’ll get your seat. - Sunday Tribune

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