In 1977, American Airlines offered me a job in Manhattan in their Operations Research group and I took it.
One of our projects was to build a mathematical model to determine how much we should overbook each flight so as to maximize profit. You could generate happy clients when there isn’t enough room in coach by bumping them up to first class. But if you throw them off the plane entirely you might lose them forever.
On the other hand, since a full-fare customer could use their ticket on any airline at any time without penalty, if you kept a seat open for everyone who said they would fly with you then your planes would fly half-empty. It was an economic necessity to overbook, and every airline did it, but I was not about to tell my friends about this part of my job. Nobody really thought an airline should promise something and then not deliver. Nobody. Including me.
Fifteen years later, we found ourselves living in Tokyo and planning a visit to relatives in England. I made a reservation on Japan Airlines but, after we realized that the flight landed at a very inconvenient time, we made a second booking on British Airways.
Upon return, as we walked through the door to our home in Tokyo, the phone was ringing.
“Hello, is this Mister Allen?”
“Are you OK?”
“And your family; is everyone all right?”
“Sure. Who is this?”
“This is Japan Airlines. A week ago you had a reservation on our flight from Tokyo bound for London’s Heathrow airport. You didn’t show up. We held the plane for 15 minutes and you still didn’t come so we took off without you. We can make up fifteen minutes in the air but eventually we had to go because it would be inconsiderate of our other passengers to wait any longer. We just want to make sure you are all well.”
“We’re fine. We flew on British Airways instead.”
“You flew on British Airways?”
“That’s right. We had full-fare tickets and they are good on any airline.”
“That’s true. But you didn’t tell us.”
“We don’t need to tell you. We can use our tickets on any airline at any time.”
“That’s true too. But, by not telling us, you were being inconsiderate.
Just because you are a customer does not make you always right.