What is a ticket? And how does it apply to over-booked flights?

 by Martin Belam, 25 February 2004

Maybe I should have watched more airport reality shows and been prepared for this, but I was astonished late last year to turn up at Heathrow and find I couldn't get onto the flight I had tickets for, because it was over-booked.

I am fairly sure major airlines have better legal advice than me, and that I had in fact only puchased some sort of "permission to try to fly you if we have space" voucher. However I naivly assumed that paying £350-odd to catch a specified flight entitled me to be on it.

Cyprus Airways were the culprits, as my new wife and myself headed out for our honeymoon. There were other couples who couldn't get on to the flight, and graciously one older couple agreed not to try and fly in the hope that we could get on. I should have had the presence of mind to ask for their contact details because I wish I was now able to send them a card & present - it was very sweet of them.

My wife and I turned on a controlled performance of you cry and I'll be angry. We were offered either an overnight stay in London, or a flight to Athens to then connect to Cyprus the next day. We held firm and in the end the captain of the plane agreed to take us in the "jump seats" as cabin crew. This only happened because it was our honeymoon. Naturally before we left we had to sign a document waiving our legal rights of complaint - although I didn't check the small-print to see whether it precluded my blogging it - or blogging about it a couple of months later when I could be slightly more rational about it.

Travelling in the "jump seats" means that for take-off and landing you have to sit with the cabin crew in the rear of the plane. My wife was in the kitchen, with no view of where we were in the take-off sequence, whilst I was cramping the style of an air-steward. I had to give my wife hand signals to indicate when we were taking off.

"Jump seats" also means that during the flight you have to sit at the "muster stations" next to the emergency exits over the wings, facing the back of the plane - with no table to eat your food from, no view of the information screens, no headphone socket for the films, and you are cramping someone elses leg-room for the entire flight.

The pursar on the flight gave us a bottle of champagne as compensation. Typically British I was bought off by the promise of getting drunk ;-)

We booked the tickets from ebookers, who I would still use again, and would absolve from blame themselves, if it wasn't for one thing. On my return I found waiting in my in-box a mail from them asking me to give feedback on how my journey had been. Which was excellent customer service and a real boost to their brand image. I wrote them a very fair account of what had happened - but got no acknowledgement or reply. Which wasn't so good.

And I've now given both Cyprus Airways & eBookers a grace period of four months to attempt to contact me and try and convince me I should ever use them again because they are sorry that, in the words I used at Heathrow "You've made my wife cry, and ruined the start of our honeymoon"

In the end we were very grateful that they had squeezed us on, and that we got to Cyprus in time to enjoy the full holiday we had planned. But the more I have subsequently thought about it, the more it seems incredible to me that you could purchase two tickets, four months in advance of travel, for a specific flight, and turn up on the day to be told that it wasn't valid for travel. Imagine if that happened at football, or gigs, or the theatre: "Sorry sir, we know you bought a ticket for the show, but we over-booked it. Here is a voucher to get some food and an overnight stay instead, and we'll try and squeeze you in the next time Kraftwerk tour".


I don't like the idea of 'over-booking in case people don't turn up' but it does mean that you learn to get to the airport early. Shame it happened at the start of your honeymoon though. :-(

I'm not sure which airline it is, but Ukraine flights from Kiev will overbook, and then take all the passengers that turn up. So passengers end up standing in the aisles. Makes you wonder about the amount of safety equipment that there is to go around...

My fiancee and I had a similar experience coming back from Canada using Air Canada except we weren't immediately told the flight was overbooked. We found out only after we asked why our bags were being labelled "standby" at the check-in. Like you, we had booked the tickets 4 months in advance and naievely thought this meant we actually had seats on the flight.

From what we found out later this is something that happens regularly and is considered normal practice by just about every airline. In most cases, the small print associated with (but not necessarily on) your ticket will indicate that you may not have a for-real seat and that you can't sue the airline if you don't fly.

And you thought software end-user licenses were dodgy!

This happened to my Dad when flying to China. However they offered him a free upgrade to Business. Yet he cleverly made a fuss about wanting to sit next to his friend, and so they got a further free upgrade to first class. Which meant all kinds of free stuff. Though he ended up sleeping most of it in comfort in the almost-horiontal seats, which I guess is the ultimate luxury.

I think that was a Chinese airline. Apparently they also served very good food.

Working in a travel agents, we often recieve complaints of this kind of practice. Not unlike yourselves, we also dissaprove of the airlines doing this as it causes aggravation to not only the person who booked it for you, but to the overseer, his manager - his manager and a handful of admin staff.

Thankfully in your favour, this rarly happens to the same person twice.

Though unfortuantly for us, the airline/tour op's love to break their servers or play with the prices, giving us agents headaches getting the correct prices to customers. In other words, we have reasons for grumpy boss's - would you like this stupidity plauging your business day in, day out. %-)

KLM do this a lot...

Once, 4 of us booked on a business trip from Manchester to Copenhagen checked in 1hr before the flight at 05:00, each with a valid ticket only to be told flight "is overwieght" - in other words - over booked.

Lots of complaining and moaning got us a breakfast voucher and €150 compensation but the business meeting was cancelled after we arrived in Copenhagen 8 hours late - to add insult to injury they also lost our baggage in Amsterdam.

Rubbish service. Rubbish Airline.

KLM - The Dutch National Lottery!


I too got bumped by KLM - along with 12 other passengers on a flight from Schiphol to Delhi.

I was told that 'due to an unfortunate mistake which no one could have forseen the flight was sold out'. I had to keep reminding them that it was no mistake but a deliberate policy on the part of KLM to over book flights.

Interestingly I checked in 2 hours before take off and was told that I had been 'randomly selected by computer' to be bumped.

KLM are indeed rubbish!

Chris Champion

We had two seats booked from Ilford by a travel agent and they were for Gulf Air, confirmed seats by Airline as per e-ticket i.e. Computer output tickets. When we were supposed to take a flight back from Lahore at 1.15pm there was no sign of flight or staff at the Airport. It was astonishing to come across such a sitution. We had to buy two tickets from another line and made our way back to London. I have written to Gulf Air and their response came on 6th December 2007 saying they are investigating. Any comments or advise will be appreciated in this regard as how to recover the money either from Gulf Air or from the Agent who booked the seats. Please advise.

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