‘Sneaky overbooking tactic’ or smart alternative to denying boarding from flights?

Gate gamble: Vueling is inviting passengers to register as volunteers to be offloaded if a flight is full (Simon Calder)
Gate gamble: Vueling is inviting passengers to register as volunteers to be offloaded if a flight is full (Simon Calder)

Evan Davis, an Australian living in Birmingham, has just returned from Paris to the West Midlands. But on Friday night, the day before his flight on Vueling from Paris Orly (code ORY) to Birmingham (BHX), he received an email from the Spanish airline indicating the flight was heavily booked.

The message offered volunteers willing to take a later flight – in this case three days later – a voucher for future travel worth €250 (£215). He wasn’t tempted, and let me know his less-than-favourable reaction:

“Surely this is a sneaky overbooking tactic? Overbooked passengers should be getting €250 in cash as well as hotels until the next flight, and that should be on any airline that has seats available.”

The email begins: “Your upcoming ORY-BHX flight on 15 JUL 2023 may be full and we are therefore looking for volunteers willing to change to another flight if necessary in exchange for a discount of 250EUR per person to use on their next booking.”

That €250 corresponds to the amount stipulated under European air passengers’ rights rules for someone denied boarding involuntarily. In those circumstances, the payment should be in cash. Hotels plus an early replacement flight as possible are obligatory.

But the Vueling email is an invitation to volunteer to be offloaded. The law has nothing to say about such circumstances: it is purely a matter for the airline and the passenger to agree upon.

Vueling takes pains to manage the traveller’s reaction. “Important: your booking hasn’t changed,” it writes. “If you aren’t interested in this offer, please just ignore this email.”

I am not sure that every passenger will feel entirely relaxed to learn that their impending departure may be full, and that volunteers are being sought not to travel.

Anyway, for those who choose to read on, this is the Vueling offer:

  • You check in and go to the boarding gate for your original flight, not knowing whether you will travel

  • At the gate, you are supposed to tell the boarding gate staff that you are a volunteer – although surely that will be clear on their reservation system?

  • You wait until everyone else boards the plane. If there is space available, you travel as originally planned – with no reward for your flexibility

  • If the plane is completely full, you wave the aircraft goodbye and collect your €250 voucher. (I imagine Vueling sends the offer only to those who have not paid for hold baggage, so there is nothing to retrieve.)

  • You confirm your seat on a later flight or ask for a full refund within a week

As previously argued, airline overbooking is a blessing for everyone when it is carried out properly – with volunteers generously rewarded, and no one denied boarding against their will.

By inviting people to volunteer the day before travel, Vueling has the right idea. Should more passengers turn up than the plane seats, the gate staff have a list of committed volunteers. But to be effective, the airline must improve the “gate gamble” incentive.

That €250 voucher looks reasonable if it were offered on a no-strings basis: “Delay your flight a couple of days ahead and we’ll reward you.” I can see that a proportion of passengers with flexibility might go for that, particularly if there were an opportunity to move the return leg as well. But Vueling does not want to pay out unless it has to. Fair enough, but to go through all the airport hassle to turn up at the gate with a fair chance of not travelling, I would expect more of a carrot.

Evan declined the option, and reported after the flight: “A few seats were empty and therefore if anyone did respond, Vueling didn’t take up their side of the offer.”

The deal needs a bit of work and a lot more generosity. But it is a step in the right direction that I can see being emulated by sister airlines Aer Lingus and British Airways.

What do you think of the “gate gamble”? You can leave your view in the comments box below, email s@hols.tv or tweet @SimonCalder