GET OUT!!!(The Business of Probability)


A major airline has been making news lately but unfortunately not for the right reasons, we expect it to have been hitting the news feeds with milestones reached and excellent services provided but it’s just bad news. A video of a passenger being dragged off a plane violently has been circulating on social media and has received fierce criticism and even caused the stock of the airline to plummet. It was quite a disturbing scene, a man who had bought his ticket now being dragged out of the plane, that’s just not right. United Airlines Flight UA 3411 which was scheduled to take off from O’Hare International Airport in Chicago to Louisville Kentucky had been “overbooked and four passengers were to give up their seats for the flight to take off as per regulations. It was found out later on that it wasn’t an actual overbooking, the airline wanted to accommodate four staff members which had to be repositioned for shifts.

But what’s all this bumping?

Overbooking is a common practice within the airlines industry. The airline sells more tickets than the actual number of seats available. This is done for quite a number of reasons but, why?


Ever wonder why sometimes you are able to get a seat on a flight that is taking off in an hour or less? Well, it turns out that not everyone who books a flight will show up so, airlines having realised that decided to “always” overbook and sometimes “oversell” tickets to allow themselves to make a profit. In an industry where you make an average profit of $6 per passenger with a 2.4% average profit margin they had to devise ways to combat huge losses and maximise profits. Generally first class seats are not overbooked as airlines are not willing to upset their premium customers, the struggle is with the economy class passengers.How much they overbook is not standard but there used to be a flat figure for overbookings until they decided to base it on a “No-Show” rate. No-Show rates are different for each flight as they are based on the statistics of the flight route, how much people are likely to fail showing up.

OVERBOOKING is practiced so as to maximise profit and optimise resources.

But they just don’t bump passengers for free, a price has to be paid for inconveniencing people because the airline knows how many passengers can be accommodated on the scheduled flight so there are fines they have to pay for overbooking. In Europe EU reg 261/2004 was put in place to define the guidelines of how passengers are to be protected when they get bumped off since it happens so often. When they bump passengers off they incur losses which is bad for the airline but the likelihood of the situation happening is the most important such that even though they know they can make a loss they are willing to make the bet. A BUSINESS OF PROBABILITY INDEED.

When a flight is overbooked and some passengers have to be removed, sometimes the passengers are asked to willingly give up their seats and be compensated, if that doesn’t work as in UA 3411 scenario a computer is used to randomly pick passengers to bump off however normally the process of removing passengers off a flight is done at the boarding gate.

Normally the process of removing passengers off a flight is done at the boarding gate

In case you get bumped off while aboard remember not to harass the crewmembers as there are regulations that could end up putting on the wrong side of the law. Due to the increase in the number of bumpings it has become a lucrative business activity for some “overbooking-hunters,” these are people who go about hunting for overbookings so that they can enjoy the benefits of being bumped off.

So how many people get bumped off?

In the US alone, 40,629 passengers were bumped off in 2016 and considered a decline from the 43 704 passengers in 2015.

India saw 12,957 passengers on domestic Indian flights denied boarding between August 2016 and February 2017.

In the UK it is estimated that in 2015 about 50 000 passengers were bumped off.

However there have been cases where some flights flew with an excess of passengers as happened in February with Pakistan International Airlines PK743 which flew with 7 passengers standing in the aisle from Jeddah to Karachi. Such practices are indeed a disregard for the safety precautions associated with the aviation industry and do endanger the life of many.

What’s going on?

Device what?

A few weeks ago the United States and the UK issued bans on some electronic devices larger that 16cm*9.3cm(tablets, laptops, etc) for direct flights originating from several predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle east and North Africa to the US and UK. The ban restricts passengers from bringing their devices into the cabin, those wishing the bring their devices aboard are to bring them as checked in luggage, which is transported in the luggage haul. It was received with mixed feelings by travellers and some industry operators. Airlines with flights from the affected countries responded differently but the Royal Jordanian’s notice caught my attention.

royal jordanian

As I read through I got to point 6 and I thought, do people really know what’s going on with the aircraft when they are flying? Is flight really a miracle to them? I wonder how many people ever asked that, I remember my first flight it was one of the most exciting moments of my life. For sometime I had been learning about aircraft but had never had the opportunity to fly. I had flown in a military helicopter but it doesn’t give you the sense of flying except maybe when you are the pilot even though helicopters are  great fascination to me.

The UK did not give reasons as to why they had implemented the ban/restriction but the US Department of Homeland Security cited security threats bases on “evaluated intelligence”. There is some suspicion that terrorist organisations like Al-Qaeda might smuggle bombs through devices like laptops. An incident of such a nature occurred when a “laptop bomb” exploded in a Somali plane and Al-Shabaab, an Al-Qaeda group claimed the responsibility. The ban is seeking to protect the safety of passengers which is of paramount importance.

After one is done appreciating the miracle of flight then gets to point 12, think of reasons why you don’t have a laptop or tablet with you? If you direct this question to the USA authorities they will tell you it’s for safety reasons(your safety or flight safety). But what really makes flying safe?

Flight safety?

The aviation industry is reputable for its high standards of safety, today it remains one of the safest mode of transport. In 2013 with 3.048 billion passengers only 256 lost their lives, that is one per 11,501,886. compared with 1.25 million road traffic deaths globally in 2013. In 2016 there were 325 deaths against some 3 billion passengers. The deadliest year in aviation, 1972, with the highest number of casualties saw 2373 deaths, a small number compared with other forms of transportation. Safety criticality is what differentiates the aviation industry from other industries but this impressive safety record cannot be maintained without the LAME(Licenced Aircraft Maintenance Engineer). These are the people who sign the CRS (certificate of release to service) of an aircraft after they have performed inspections, checks and problem rectification. This makes them the sole arbitrators of flight safety whilst the aircraft is still on the ground. AMEs are the hidden heroes of aviation safety and they are the difference between a safe and unsafe flight. Some dirt or debris in mechanical parts can cause devastating fatalities, a loose wire connection can set the aircraft on fire mid air. Even a missing rivet can pose a major threat to flight safety. Sometimes the “behind the scenes” role they play make them a target when companies seek to cut costs but such a move can bring a heavy burden to an airline due to maintenance errors that may result afterwards due to a number of human factors such as fatigue as a result of tight schedules. The burden can come in the form of loses, reputational and financial and there is also the loss of lives.

Here is a list of some of the famous aircraft accidents due to maintenance error:

  • Japan Airlines flight 123
  • Aeroperu flight 603
  • Chalk’s flight 101
  • Alaska Airlines flight 261
  • American Airlines flight 191
  • Bond Super Puma AS332L Mark 11
  • Aloha Airlines 243

An incompetent AME or maintenance culture is as dangerous as a bomb placed in an aircraft. Next time when you fly remember the people that work to ensure you are safe during your flight.