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Is it legal for airlines to overbook their flights? Lawyers weigh in

By John Patrick Magno Ranara Published Oct 26, 2023 10:47 pm Updated Oct 27, 2023 6:08 pm

Just imagine, you did everything right: you were able to book your plane ticket on the date you wanted and you arrived at your designated terminal hours before your flight. But just as you are about to board, the counter agent has some bad news for you: Your flight is now overbooked.

That's exactly what Vice Ganda experienced. Vice called out Philippines Airlines (PAL) after she and her partner Ion Perez's flight got delayed and got an alleged overbooking issue. In a series of tweets, the comedian and It's Showtime host recounted how a companion missed their flight and how she nearly missed the flight as well.

In response to Vice's complaint, PAL has explained that the flight was not overbooked, but that two business class seats were deemed unsafe to use, so she was downgraded to economy class. However, Vice refuted the explanation, saying that it wasn’t what the airline staff had told her.

Given the stress the delay has caused, what is Vice entitled to? Is the airline legally liable for the distress?

Overbooking: legal or illegal?

Overbooking issues have long been a thorn in the side of passengers. But why haven't airlines been facing legal consequences for these incidents? That's because no Philippine law deems overbooking to be illegal.

As stated in the Rights of Air Passengers provided in the Official Gazette, once a person has purchased a ticket and has arrived at the airport, the general rule is that they cannot be denied the right to board the aircraft without their consent. The only time it is allowed is if the flight is of there there are more passengers than available seats.

"Overbooking is an allowed industry practice, which although seems unfair, is an economic gamble that also factors in no-shows," said Atty. Kristina Conti, a human rights lawyer, to PhilSTAR L!fe.

Atty. Jeanne Pauline Dumaual also said the same thing, adding that it is also done elsewhere in the world and noting that it is illegal "only to a certain extent." She said that the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) limits how many seats airlines can overbook to 10%.

"Legally speaking, overbooking, [which] is well within the limit of the law, is allowed. Thus it does not violate our rights as passengers. How the airline company addresses the detriments of overbooking is another story though," she said. 

"It seems preposterous to think that it's legal but this is actually done worldwide. It helps airline companies ensure that (1) the plane's seating capacity will be maximized, and (2) the airline companies' earnings [will] be stable considering that there are 'no-show' passengers," she added.

Who gets the seat?

If your flight is overbooked, air carriers can do a so-called "auction system" where they will look for volunteers who are willing to give up their seats for the other passengers waiting to board. 

If the number of volunteers is not enough, the airline will increase the compensation package until the required number of volunteers is met.

Ultimately, while overbooking is a troubling inconvenience, it's only a violation if the airline remains passive in trying to settle it, as Atty. John Angel Bautista pointed out.

He said: "Since it's not an absolute curtailment of one’s right to travel, it does not violate passengers’ right to travel. However, it violates one’s right to board an aircraft if the overbooking issue is not resolved and one is ultimately denied to board by reason of overbooking."

How much is the compensation?

The Bill of Rights of Air Passengers mandates that those whose flights are canceled less than 24 hours before the expected departure and are attributable to the air carrier shall have the right to reimburse their expenses. However, this is subject to the value of the fare, taxes and surcharges, and other optional fees. The Passenger also has the right to amenities, which may include food, drinks, and hotel accommodations.

Aside from this, the traveler "should also be prioritized in the next flight," either by being endorsed to another air carrier without paying any fare difference or being allowed to rebook the ticket without any additional charge.

The process for reimbursement is required to be made swiftly, whether it's by tendering a check, cash, or a document that is convertible to cash after 15 days after the incident.

PAL has cited these conditions per the CAB Economic Regulation No. 7. For AirAsia passengers, they are protected by a Flight Delay Insurance, which provides them an inconvenience allowance "if the flight is delayed for more than 2 hours from the departure time due to factors that are controllable by the airline, provided that the delay notification is received within 24 hours before departure."

Cebu Pacific, on the other hand, does not specify this case in their terms and conditions of carriage, assuming it’s already covered by Philippine laws.

If the airline doesn't budge, another option is to file a complaint before the CAB.

"Suing the airline for breach of contract can be an option, but you can also try suing for damages. Quasi-delicts cover instances of 'wrongful expulsion,' rude or discourteous conduct of employees, and the like," explained Conti.