Delta plays a fascinating game of chicken when it comes to overbooking flights.

And they’re pretty darn good at not involuntarily bumping people.

As many of us know — either from flying a lot or watching Dr. Dao get dragged from a plane — airlines routinely oversell flights. It’s a perfectly legal practice. Airlines gamble that a certain number of passengers won’t show up: maybe they’ll cancel at the last minute, miss their connection, or be affected some other way (i.e. stuck in traffic, whatever).

Why Care About Oversold Flights?

There are several reasons you might be curious if your flight is oversold:

  • You’re flying standby, don’t yet have a seat assigned, — and wonder if you’ll even make it on that flight
  • You’re confirmed on the flight — but your significant other, friend, colleague, etc., who purchased his or her seat separately is on standby
  • Fewer people onboard = more open seats. Maybe no one will sit next to you! Or perhaps there’s a spot where you can move and have more room
  • My personal favorite: bumps and #Bumpertunities! (We’ll soon create an updated post about bumps)

How Can You Tell if a Flight is Oversold?

Ask The Airline!

The best way (at least, as far as I know) to check if your flight is oversold is simply to ask the airline. So consider querying:

  • Reservations agents via the airline’s toll-free number
  • Tweeting the airline’s help desk (i.e. @delta)
  • Asking a check-in agent
  • Asking a gate agent
  • Asking an airline’s club lounge agent (i.e. Delta Sky Club — not The Club or American Express Centurion Lounge)

Airline reps will tell you whether or not your flight is oversold. If your flight is indeed oversold, they likely won’t tell you by how many. They don’t know if you’re spying for another airline, prying for nefarious reasons, or what.

That being said, a few reps have told me “we’re oversold by one” or “yep, by four.” Maybe they’re telling the truth, maybe they’re making up numbers (though I tend to think the former).

Consult Expert Flyer

If you have an Expert Flyer pro subscription, search for your flight. If all available fare classes — especially in coach — show zero seats available several hours to an hour or so prior to your flight, there’s a decent chance it’s oversold.

Find Airline Award & Upgrade availability 

Is Your Flight Still for Sale?

Visit the airline’s website or app. Try shopping for your flight. If it’s no longer listed or says “sold out” for at least coach/main cabin, there’s an OK chance it’s oversold.

Check the Upgrade and Standby List

This the least reliable option, in my opinion.

Let’s use Delta Air Lines as our example airline for this situation.

You’ll find the upgrade and standby list on the Fly Delta app and gate information display screens (or “GIDS”).

Delta Air Lines gate information display screen (GIDS)

You may see 10 seats available on the standby list — and 20 people waiting for seats. Does that mean your flight is oversold? Not necessarily.

Those 20 may include some non-revenue passengers (“non-revs”): airline employees traveling for free as part of their travel benefits, people using buddy passes, etc. They aren’t necessarily guaranteed seats. (I believe Basic Economy passengers are also placed on the standby list prior to seat assignment.)

Standby List on the Fly Delta app

And, of course, people flying standby but yet not assigned seats are also included in that number.

Any Other Tips?

Do you have any other suggestions to ascertain whether or not a flight is oversold? Please share them in the Comments section!

–Chris

This blog series covers in a “rookie” way either a Delta or travel related theme and attempts to break down to a basic level each topic. You can read up on all the previous posts HERE. Are you an experienced traveler but know someone may benefit from this post? Please share it! 

8 Comments

  1. You confused the words overBOOKED with overSOLD.

    When you call your reservation agent, they can tell you that it is overbooked. Airlines typically overbook coach (but not domestic F) for all of the reasons you mentioned.

    It is not until the day of the flight and the gate agents start working it that they will announce that it is overSOLD and will start looking for volunteers.

    Overbooking is very common but thanks to their predictive algorithms, oversold is relatively rare. Of course, all if this assumes that this is not an IROP situation where all of the “predictive” get thrown out the window.

  2. If you want to know if a flight is over sold because you want to take advantage of a bumportunity the ultimate resource is the gate agent. If you’ve looked on line and it appears there are no seats available get to the gate an hour before departure – that’s when they open. Ask if the flight is oversold. If it is, offering to give up your seat reduces the gate agent’s stress level. I always travel with extra boarding passes for this purpose. While waiting to see what happens go on line and make screen shots of the alternate flight(s) that work best for you. If more than two gate agents and a Red Coat appear the flight is almost certainly oversold by multiple seats. Most of the time your seat will not be needed. The gate agent will thank you and ask you to board. If the flight is oversold you’ll be #1 on the bumportunity list.

  3. I have always wondered how overselling a flight is not considered fraud?

    You knowingly sell more of what you physically have on hand

    And everyone buying the seat has an expectation that you will deliver said seat when they show up at the airport

    Or are there some weasel words that basically says I am buying a seat on a flight that the airline may have knowingly oversold my seat??

  4. Wayne is spot on. I follow the similar path. Being a former gate agent, I always appreciated a willing volunteer. Best to arrive the gate area early and introduce yourself and offer to volunteer if they are in an oversold situation. If they take your information, start researching options to get home, via the airline app. The gate agent is usually pressed for time, and will only offer a seat on a nonstop route. Sometimes that means spending a night in your current city. But, if you think out of the box, and can find another route for that same day/night, and there are seats available, the agent will usually accommodate. For example, I was in Denver trying to fly home to LAX on a mid day flight. The flight was oversold and weight restricted (due to hot temperatures). The gate agent said they would only have seats on the next day’s morning flight. I noticed the flights to SLC and SEA were starting to board. I suggested she rebook me on the DEN to SEA to LAX flights. It would mean a 5 hour delay in my original return time, but still getting home that night. And in return, I scored a really nice gift card and a few extra miles. The Red Coat quickly booked me and I was the last to board the SEA flight. The family of 4 (that was behind me) said “we want to go with her”. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough time to rebook all 4 of them, issue the gift cards. So they ended up spending the night in Denver.

  5. Empty seats cost airlines money. Over selling seats helps keep ticket prices down. The Feds could stop the practice but we’d all have to pay more for tickets. Airlines have developed sophisticated algorithms to determine how many extra seats can reasonably be sold on each and every flight. In the rare event there are more passengers than seats volunteers are given an opportunity to give up their seats for a negotiated compensation. Very rarely are passengers actually denied boarding because seats open up when enough compensation is offered. I believe Delta gate agents have the authority to offer up to $9,950. Denied boarding is never a good thing when it occurs but overselling seats is the price we pay to keep airfares as low as possible.

  6. @Wayne – Gate agent up to 3k. Redcoat up to 10k (well, 9950 as you point out).

  7. Frankie

    Oversold flights now offer passengers the opportunity to volunteer at check in and bid a minimum amount. This reverse auction saves DL money by allowing the gate agent to select the lowest bids.

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