What Do You Do If An Airline Double Books Your Seat?

The sight of people being confused about which seat they're meant to be in on a plane is incredibly common. But what do you do if you've got the same seat on your boarding pass as somebody else?

Plane picture from Shutterstock

Every once in a while when I fly, I'll take my seat only to have a passenger approach me and inform me I'm sitting in "their" seat. 95 per cent of the time they have misread the seat allocations during the hustle and bustle of boarding.

It's usually only a small fuss, unless they've boarded quite late and suddenly realise that they're looking at the wrong seat and that their carry on luggage might have to go somewhere else on the plane. I tend to board as early as I can on flights for precisely that reason.

Triple bookings: how not to allocate airline seats

Recently on a Jetstar flight from Sydney to Perth with my family, I hit a wrinkle I'd not experienced previously. There were five of us, which is always an interesting proposition, because very few plane layouts allow for 3-2 style seating, and as much as I love my kids, I readily agree that they won't be everyone's cup of tea to sit next to on a late night flight. This was Jetstar's last flight out of Sydney for the night, landing in Perth just after 11pm thanks to the two hour time difference.

We were seated in Row 19, seats A-C and D-E, with F being the "empty" seat that we figured would be filled with one random flyer or another. We sat down, waited, and in due course, someone turned up at the row and we directed them to the only available seat (the window) figuring it was the only "spare" seat going.

About five minutes later, another passenger appeared and stated that he thought I was sitting in his seat. I grabbed my ticket to show him his error.

Only he wasn't wrong. We both had been allocated Seat 19D, and both had boarding passes that had been scanned to this effect. What's more, the passenger behind him had 19E, which was currently being occupied by my teenage daughter.

This wasn't great, so we called the cabin staff, but being in the process of loading up the plane, it was hard for them to reach us. By the time they did, three more passengers had turned up with boarding passes for seats 19A-C, just to make things even trickier. To further complicate matters, the passenger in F was, it turns out, also in 19E, and another passenger had arrived with a boarding pass for 19F.

Jetstar had, in other words, failed rather calamitously in actually having a seat checking algorithm that didn't allow for people sitting in each other's laps, and in at least one case, with a triple booking to boot. Thankfully, the majority of double-booked passengers were in decent spirits around this, figuring that it was Jetstar's problem to solve.

That has to be the first and most primary tip in this situation. The problem hasn't been caused by you, and while it's stressful, getting belligerent is unlikely to help your cause. I've been on flights where someone's either sat in my seat or tried to do so by error and become angry -- in one case, shouting and spitting -- and it doesn't end well for the shouter in any case. Airlines can and will remove unruly passengers if you give them reason to do so.

My worry in this case was that, as it was the last flight out of Sydney, what would happen if the plane was full? Thankfully that didn't happen, although I wasn't entirely thrilled when the staff elected to shift my entire already seated family in favour of five people travelling individually. It would have been hard for them to remove us, not because I'm an air rage passenger, but simply because we had checked bags they'd have to remove from the plane as well.

I chalked that up to the joys of budget airlines, with a mental note to look into what the exact rules were in cases where through airline error it wasn't possible to fly at all.

Perth was, by the way, an awesome city, and a great time was had by all.

Airline terms and conditions

In my case alternate seats were available, but what's the practical recourse if the plane had been full and they had bumped us from the flight?

Jetstar's Conditions Of Carriage are rather blunt on this matter:

We can change your seat at any time, even after you have boarded the aircraft, including for safety, security or operational reasons.

Further down, it elaborates on what it will and won't do in instances where you're delayed:

Where a delay or cancellation is caused by circumstances beyond our control, whether you have checked in or not, Jetstar will try to assist you to get to your destination, but will not be responsible for paying any costs or expenses you may incur as a result of the delay or cancellation, unless otherwise required by law.

There are clauses in there for "downgrade" of fares -- so if you'd paid one of their infamous extra charges for seat allocation, for example, you could reasonably claim that back from Jetstar.

There are similar clauses for other Australian domestic airlines, although the levels of compensation vary. Qantas states that:

If, due to circumstances within our control, after you buy your Ticket we make a significant change to the scheduled departure time of your flight or the flight is cancelled, we will:  

  • rebook you on the next available flight (or combination of flights) on our services to your booked destination at no additional cost to you
  • alternatively, at your option, refund the applicable fare
  • if you choose to continue travel and the change or cancellation occurs on the day of scheduled travel, resulting in your delay at the departure airport, provide you with meal or refreshment vouchers (or reimburse you for the reasonable costs of meals or refreshments if we do not provide vouchers)
  • if your travel with us is delayed overnight and you have already commenced travel on your booking (ie you are at an 'away' port), use reasonable endeavours to assist you to find overnight accommodation or reimburse your reasonable accommodation costs if we have not provided accommodation.

Virgin Australia has the almost exact same wording as Jetstar when it comes to seat shifting ("We may change your seat at any time, even after you have boarded the aircraft for any reason, including for safety or operational reasons.") and like Jetstar, states no specific liability for any additional losses in the case of you not being able to be on a flight:

We may need to cancel or delay and reschedule flights or services due to industrial action, landing restrictions, airport loading restrictions, unsuitable weather conditions, technical problems, operational reasons, or any event beyond our reasonable control, and scheduled flight times or destinations are not guaranteed. Subject to the consumer guarantees referred to in paragraph 2.4 and to the extent permitted by any applicable Laws, we are not liable for any Loss which you may incur as a result of any such delayed or rescheduled flight or service.

The paragraph references is rather boilerplate stuff relating to Australian consumer law, but they do highlight your other option in the case that an airline is unable to transport you due to no error on your part.

They're still obliged to offer service or refund at your discretion, not their own. Obviously in the case of a flight that's departing you can't catch the same flight, but a separate flight, or full refund should apply in those cases.

Any Lifehacker readers had any double booking inflight experiences, or tips for this kind of situation? Share them below!

Lifehacker Australia contributor Alex Kidman rarely sleeps on planes, even when he can get a seat. The Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears regularly on Lifehacker.


Comments

    Yup that sounds like classic Jetstar shenanigans. Whole reason I don't fly with them anymore, after the last case of charging my credit card twice for 1 seat and then not refunding the money they overcharged.

      Every time I hear about somebody being double-charged for something I wonder if it's technically theft which could involve jail time for somebody...

      One reason I've started using PayPal more; while they are not a bank and do not carry any bank guarantees, they have rigged the game almost entirely in favour of the purchaser.

        Maybe - but this sounds like a classic case of "I accidentally booked a couple of times and the customer service rep called me on my mistake"

          You must work for Jetstar, given your smart remark am I right? It's all fun and games until it happens to you mate. Let me know when you get back that extra $500 you have to feed your family with.

            lol, righto mate. the classic "dissenting opinion, must be working for the enemy"

            and no, i do not work for jetstar. i am just a jaded customer service manager.

            the only reason that conclusion even existed in my head is because i've done the job too long. If something is genuinely wrong, it gets refunded; company name notwithstanding. You didn't get refunded, so what aren't you telling us, mate?

            Last edited 16/07/15 3:22 pm

      If this occurs again, dispute the transaction with your bank.

    What kind of dumb strategy is that? Move an already seated family of 5 for 5 individual people? And you weren't even kicked from the plane, just moved seats.

      Yeah it seemed daft to me too.

    I've had the worst experience from Jetstar, and I'm glad that you don't have to experience their phone 'customer service' or lack thereof... To this day, I'm still upset that they cancelled two of my flights for no reason other than 'lack of staff'. And they refused to pay for another flight back home.
    TBH, I'm one of the lucky ones who didn't suffer any worse horror, as your family had experienced.

      Jetstar are the worst. I've flown internationally with them quite a bit as they have often been the cheapest and flying the family to the US is expensive.

      Last time we went however, Virgin turned out to be the cheapest. I had always thought of them as a budget airline as well, but they were amazing. Probably one of the nicest flight experiences I've had in a long time.

    I simply don't understand why at the gate this isn't detected....
    Ticket please, Scan, Beep... Big red flashing screen "Seat XXX already allocated to boarded passenger! Please allocate new seat"

      It should be picked up before the gate,

      Shouldn't need to pick it up at the gate. There should never be a situation where actual overlapping boarding passes are printed in the first place.

    "in actually having a seat checking algorithm that didn’t allow for people sitting in each other’s laps,"
    You're just not opening up to the wider experience of travelling..
    The mental imagery of this situation made me laugh though.

    Is that the correct clause?

    "Where a delay or cancellation is caused by circumstances beyond our control"
    Them triple booking a seat is not beyond their control, something like volcanic ash is though.

    Is there anything in their T&Cs about them stuffing up and what you are entitled to?

    We've only ever had that happen once, luckily it was a quiet(ish) flight so the passenger who arrived after us to discover we had the same seat booking just moved himself to an empty seat.

    You'd hope this was human error. If it's a machine/computer issue then the airline's booking system is worryingly flawed.

    I entirely understand that airlines overbook planes. But it's another thing to overbook a specific seat allocation. Surely once someone has been assigned a seat (either pre or post check-in) and then checked in, that seat should be then considered unavailable. Allowing it to be allocated onto another passenger seems utterly illogical as surely the airline should know that two people will be competing for the same seat.

    All of these sorts of hassles will only delay departure of the aircraft which I would have thought to be a bigger issue (fine attached at most airports).

    And what if the flight was truly overbooked. Then not only would one of these passengers need to leave the plane, but their baggage would have to be offloaded too. Again with more delays and associated charges.

    I stopped flying Jetstar years ago (lousy service, etc) and this is just another reason not to go back.

    I was on an international qantas flight a number of years ago, went to board, but the machine didnt like my boarding pass, and it had picked up i had the same seat as someone else who already checked in (thats what the attendant told me, they printed me a new boarding pass with different seat and i got on).

    I was told they often (or used to) over sell flights expecting 1 or 2 people to miss the flight but allocating the same seat is just buggy software, quite possibly a race condition when custom allocating a seat the same time as someone else.

    so what's the point of them scanning tickets at the gate if it doesn't alert there might be a problem with the ticket? what about fake tickets?

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