How To Tell If An American Flight Is Overbooked

I always find it fascinating how airlines overbook flights. Obviously airlines want to maximize revenue as much as possible without inconveniencing passengers too much, and often that involves selling more seats than they have, either in a particular cabin or on the plane as a whole, based on historical no show rates, cancellations, misconnects, etc.

Say there’s a flight with a first, business, and economy class cabin on a fairly leisure route. It could be that a month before departure coach is already booked to capacity, while there are 50 empty seats in first and business class. Rather than not selling any more economy class seats and hoping that people buy first or business class (which is unlikely on a leisure route), an airline might open up more coach inventory and ultimately operationally upgrade people rather than turn down additional economy class revenue. This is especially common on Emirates, for example, where I’ve seen flights that have been oversold by 50+ people in economy class, while first and business class were wide open. I’ve even seen an Emirates flight where business class was oversold by over a dozen people and no one was booked in first class, so they ended up operationally upgrading 14 business class passengers to first class.

With the above in mind, there’s an important distinction to make between the terms overbooked and oversold, though. A flight is overbooked when they’ve sold more seats than there are in a cabin. However, they may keep selling seats since based on historical trends it’s still likely the flight will go out with empty seats due to no show rates. Meanwhile a flight is oversold when there are no seats remaining for sale, because even factoring in historical no show rates it’s likely they’ll have to bump people.

So American actually makes it pretty easy to see just how full a cabin is. American is one of the few remaining airlines to offer “standard” awards, or as they call them “AAnytime awards.” That means as long as long as there’s a seat left on the flight you can redeem miles for it.

There’s an important distinction there, though — it’s based on whether there’s a seat still available, and not whether they’re still selling seats, which are two totally different things.

Randomly I pulled up tomorrow’s flight from New York to Sao Paulo on American. Take a look at the late night flight, AA951. It’s “F2 J4,” which means they’re willing to sell two first class seats and four business class seats on the flight.


So then I went to and searched award space on it. I clicked on “Business/First AAnytime” award, and when I searched for one seat it returned space. The same is true for when I searched two seats.


However, when I searched for three seats the flight no longer showed up, and that’s despite the fact that they’re still selling four seats in business class on that flight.


So what can we conclude based on that? Even though they’re selling two first class seats and four business class seats, in reality there are only two first class seats and two business class seats remaining. But they’ll gladly take revenue for four business class seats even if it means upgrading two people to first class.

Anyway, admittedly it’s a subtle distinction, but something I find interesting. It also explains why sometimes you may see a flight that’s still selling seats yet doesn’t have “AAnytime awards” available.

Filed Under: American
  1. Wouldn’t it be possible to create a booking as a F J or Y and price it as a revenue ticket and than once it’s on hold to switch it to a AAnytime award as the booking code comes from the same fare bucket

  2. Fascinating. I guess that explains why Emirates just upgraded my dad from discount economy, with no status, to business, all the way from SYD to ZRH via DXB. Since QF almost never offers op-ups, I know who I’ll be choosing between Australia and Europe from now on.

  3. This is also why during snowstorms or other irregular ops, the gate will call before endorsing you to another airline, as they might still be listing full Y for sale but actually be oversold and actually have no seats.

    And for revenue tickets during normal ops, they might be over by some small amount, yet still willing to take another full fare pax, knowing they could solicit volunteers for VDB paying much smaller money and still make out ok.

    @Dov, that’s a great idea if you could get an agent to do it. I can think of times when I’d want a ticket like that, mostly when I know the flight is already oversold 🙂

  4. Surprised a reader with lots of AA miles and status hasn’t booked up the seats for fun for the next 24 hours just to watch your tweet anxiety build 🙂

  5. You said:

    “Even though they’re selling two first class seats and four business class seats, in reality there are only two first class seats and two business class seats remaining.”

    This statement is solely based on the fact that you could not get 3 award seats. What makes you sure that there are no 4 J seats but that AA is just not willing to sell more than 2 seats as award as they expect to sell at least 2 J seats last minute? And they do not want to risk a family of 4 snagging award seats last minute as they will forego cash revenue? Also, did you check if you could at least upgrade from Y to J for 4 persons?

  6. OK, just saw the previous post stating you might be flying Y, so I assume you did this look up for your flight and thus had no chance on upgrading… Have fun in the (front of) the back! 😉

  7. @ KG — I know because that’s their stated policy. They only make as many “standard” award seats available as there are seats on the plane, as opposed to how many seats they’re willing to sell on revenue fares.

  8. A little side note regarding Emirates, I can tell you from my experience. For the last three years, I have been buying coach ticket for JFK-DXB-BOM, and every time i was upgraded to the business class. Few days ago, while talking to the gate agent, I casually asked about it. She said, They do not like a woman to fly in coach class(not sure why?) alone, so they usually upgrade them to the business class. Not sure if it is their stated policy, or they just want to be nice, but I am a happy customer :).

  9. @Lucky,
    Interesting article.

    I read somewhere (forgot?) that ExpertFlyer offers some discount or promotion membership. Is it worthwhile for average travelers like me (fly about 3 to 4 times a year domestically and 2 times internationally)?

  10. @ Andy — It depends what you’re looking to get out of it. In general probably not anymore. ExpertFlyer was really useful when they let you set availability alerts on all Star Alliance carriers, though since that’s not possible anymore I’d say the value has dropped quite a bit.

  11. All the time I flew emirates I got upgrade d except when I flew with family, they always over sell, @shruti, abt not wanting women flying alone on coach.. not true, sometime the agent picks, ppl to upgrade based on nationality, looks, and color, completely upon agent decision, Gulf air does same

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