Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Jetset: "Golden Week Blues"

Another Golden Week, another billion travelers – or so it seems. Expect to witness the burst of national wanderlust this October, as people across China take their first serious vacation after the cancellation of the weeklong May Day holiday, and the relaxation of the Olympics-related security clampdown. Airlines have been doing their part to lure travelers back in the sky with amazing offers, like Air China’s EUR 99 roundtrip fare between Munich and Beijing.

For fliers, the National Day holiday travel craze means crowds on the Airport Express trains, in front of check-in counters and at the boarding gates – if you manage to make it that far. Chinese airlines have increasingly adopted the international practice of overbooking. In other words, they sell more tickets for a flight than the plane can accommodate. Flag carrier Air China recently even posted a notice on its homepage reminding passengers about the prospect of not having a seat on a flight on which one holds a confirmed reservation.

Before anyone gets outraged about overbooking, remember that you actually agree to it when buying an air ticket (carefully read the contract of carriage). Why do the airlines do it though? Well, business fliers, who routinely pay the highest walk-up fares, often change their travel plans at the last minute. Other passengers may also fail to make their flights for various reasons including missed connections. Airlines expect these “no-shows” when they sell tickets, and overbooking allows the carriers to take off with a full plane on most runs.

Figuring out how many seats to oversell each flight is almost a science – major airlines employ analysts dedicated to calculating that magic number based on historical data stored in their vast computer reservation systems. These experts are usually right, but problems arise when everyone does show up – and that tends to occur during holidays. For check-in or gate agents, the drill is to first ask for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for free tickets, upgrade certificates and other incentives – often a good deal if you have the time.

The nastier scenario only plays out when there are not enough volunteers. The airline will then have to refuse boarding to certain passengers based on such factors as fares paid, frequent flier status and check-in time. Despite the potential customer backlash and re-accommodation hassles, airlines overbook to maximize passenger load – thus revenue – for every flight.

As we mentioned before, while it is never a pleasant experience to be denied boarding involuntarily, rejoice if you happen to be in a Europe Union country. For long-haul international flights, you get at least EUR 600 in cash, in addition to rebooking, free meals, phone calls and a hotel room if needed. If you are stranded here in China, however, pray there is a major international event. Throughout the Olympics and Paralympics period, temporary regulations entitled passengers unable to make their original flights to unconditional re-accommodation and other generous compensations – regardless of the cause (yes, that includes bad weather). Roll on, 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 30 of the October 2008 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

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