The Indignity of Being Overbooked

by Site Author

There are certain things I know to be true. The earth is not flat. The sky is blue. You tip the waitress but not the hygienist.

Then there are things I thought were true, but have since learned are false. I used to think that buying a ticket for an airplane trip meant that you had reserved a seat on the plane. Then I learned what it means for a flight to be overbooked.

I was traveling back home from a seminar. And since I had presented a paper that day, I didn’t have time to check in online. Instead, I arrived at the airport, at 8 PM, a couple hours ahead of the flight, which was the last of the day. I was given a ticket once I arrived, but my boarding group number was 99. Already a bad sign.

But I thought nothing of it and headed for the gate. I bought an overpriced hamburger. I read a few glossy magazines. And I didn’t notice anything else amiss until the airline staff started asking passengers if they would voluntarily give up their seats for a free voucher. They made the announcement five times over the loud speaker, but no one approached the counter.

It was then that I realized what a mistake it is to forget to check in. No one had ever told me this. I’d been warned to floss, to save for retirement, to shower each morning. No one had ever explained the importance of checking in. I mean, I bought a ticket.

And so it was a tired customer-service representative named Sean who had to explain things to me. Yes, I had bought a ticket, but the airline had overbooked the flight by five seats. And so I and four of my fellow passengers stood before him, waiting for arrangements to be made.

The airline was Airtran, a budget airline that keeps prices low by cutting meals, underpaying its staff, and violating the dignity of its customers. Airtran was originally called ValuJet, but changed its name after a long history of safety violations culminated with a plane falling into the Florida Everglades.

So there I stood as Sean, a man who I will remember forever as my teacher that night, explained the distinction between a ticket and a reservation. Nearly all airlines overbook their flights. Some passengers fail to show up, and overbooking allows airlines to make double the money on seats that would otherwise be empty.

I looked at him with contempt. “Just because all airlines do it doesn’t make it right.” He smiled, and nodded, much like the Buddhist meditation teachers I had met. “Yes, that’s true. It doesn’t make it right.”

I listed my demands. “I have an important meeting tomorrow morning at 11 AM.” I had no such meeting. “I can’t miss it. Get me home for that meeting.”

Sean pecked away at his computer. The only flight he could find for me was at the exact same time the following night. I told him that that wouldn’t work. He told me that I didn’t have a choice.

Sean handed me a ten-dollar meal voucher, meant to cover my needs for the next 24 hours, and sent me to an airport hotel. There, I found myself a martini at the bar, and wondered why no one else looked furious.

Out of a mix of boredom and anger, I called the airline’s office, and managed to get Sean’s supervisor on the phone. My plan was simple. I would explain how unfair the airline had been to me, and I would be so persuasive that the staff would break down in tears and drive to the hotel to apologize in person. After he bought me another martini, Sean’s supervisor would charter a midnight flight for me.

“Hi, Sean suggested I give you a call. I’m spending 24 hours in a crappy hotel because of you and your stupid airline. How can you fix this?”

What followed was a tense conversation, which went nowhere, and achieved nothing. I noticed, however, that Sean’s supervisor wasn’t hanging up on me. They seem to have some sort of code: over-booking a flight is OK, stranding paying customers is OK, but when on the phone, the customer has to hang up first.

And so I dragged out the conversation as long as I could. For an hour—or who knows, two hours, I was drunk—I harangued Sean’s supervisor about the injustice, the horror, the greed, the terrible thing they had done to me. And it was only once I had exhausted myself that I finally hung up and went to bed.

I spent the next day at the hotel, and went to the airport in the evening. When I checked in at the gate, Sean was there. He looked me in the eye.

“You called my supervisor last night and said that I told you to call him. But that’s not true.”

I was taken aback, and tried to remind Sean of the real victim. “You sent me to a hotel for 24 hours with a ten dollar check! I was–”

“I followed all the standard rules for you. I’m sorry you had to be here—that wasn’t my fault. But I didn’t tell you to call my supervisor. I don’t appreciate being lied on.”

“I don’t appreciate spending an entire day at a hotel–”

“I know and I’m sorry. But I don’t appreciate being lied on.”

He used that phrase, “being lied on.” Though not grammatically correct, it was accurate. And with that, Sean walked away. I sat down next to the gate and watched other passengers slowly arrive.

For some reason, I thought of my grandfather, a man I only knew briefly, towards the end of his life. He was a tall, dignified man, with a full head of white hair. If you saw him slowly walking about in Florida, where he spent his last days, you would have called him a gentleman.

I took out my phone and called Sean’s supervisor.

“I just want you to know that Sean did an excellent job helping me through this.”

Sean had given me a voucher for two free flights on Airtran. I never used that voucher, mostly because I never want to fly on that airline again. But also because I have since chalked up the value of that voucher as tuition.

I don’t want to be a sucker. I don’t want to be pushed around. But I also hope that, some day, I’ll be called a gentleman, too.