ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Following the plane crash, hundreds of flights into San Francisco were canceled, stranding thousands of passengers at airports all across the country. The crash came right in the middle of a holiday weekend. It disrupted airlines' networks at a time when many of their flights were already intentionally overbooked. As NPR's Steve Henn reports, the difficulties these passengers face getting home provide a window into how airlines operate.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Inside airports yesterday, folks headed west faced crowded, overbooked flights. This was the scene 24 hours ago. I'm standing here at Gate 113 in Newark Airport. There is a huge crowd of people pressed up against the desk, trying to get to San Francisco. Flights have been delayed or canceled for the last 24 hours, and the backups have made it almost impossible to find a seat into San Francisco.
IMRAN QURESHI: There's no way to go home.
HENN: Imran Qureshi(ph) was stuck at Newark after flying in from the U.K. on Saturday.
QURESHI: I've been going to every flight, which leaves every hour, to see if I can get on a standby, but apparently the airline has policies to overbook every flight. So if they have overbooked their flight, people on standby have no chance at all.
HENN: The flight Qureshi was hoping to get on had close to 100 passengers waiting on the standby list, but absolutely no space. So what did she just announce?
QURESHI: She said that if somebody wants to give up their seat, which they already have confirmed, then she will give them $500 and one night somewhere, and then they can go back on Wednesday, not before Wednesday.
HENN: There were no takers. Instead, United was bumping between a dozen to a half-dozen confirmed passengers off of almost every flight to San Francisco. Serge Francois(ph) was one of the unlucky ones.
SERGE FRANCOIS: We are traveling for more than 20 hours now. We made a reservation three months ago now, so we would like to have a seat.
HENN: Elizabeth James(ph) was flying with her mom and her husband. Do they have seats?
ELIZABETH JAMES: Only my mom has, for whatever reason. She got the middle seat, but our seats are gone.
HENN: So you bought them together? You bought the tickets together?
JAMES: No. Actually, I'm using my miles for my husband and I, and she purchased hers.
JAMES: So, yes, we have no dollar number attached to our flight.
HENN: Right. So there you go. Off you go.
HENN: Bumped. It turns out there's a method to this madness: It's called customer relationship management, or CRM, and airlines helped invent it. In the eyes of the airlines, not all customers are created equal. Some, like Demetrius Kondros(ph), deserve special attention.
DEMETRIUS KONDROS: When the crash happened, Global Services actually called me and told me that I was rerouted via Munich, New York, Denver to San Jose.
HENN: And when Kondros' flight to Denver was delayed, United got him back on a direct flight to San Francisco, even though it was already oversold. Kondros jumped in front of passengers who had been stranded for days and probably pushed a confirmed passenger off of that flight. But he flies more than 200,000 miles a year. Imran Qureshi doesn't, so he won't get a flight to San Francisco until Tuesday.
QURESHI: This is just crazy. I also asked for a hotel. I said, look, it's not my fault. I - you know? And they're saying, well, it's not our fault either, so we're not going to give you a hotel. So I've been paying out of my pocket for the hotel, and this is ridiculous. This is no way to treat people.
HENN: Still, business travelers usually pay a lot more for each ticket, and they generate tens of thousands of dollars a year per person in profits for airlines. Customers who buy economy tickets once or twice a year for vacation are, financially at least, almost worthless. So when there's a disaster or bad weather closes an airport, available seats are doled out based upon a customer's carefully calculated status, not how long they've been struggling to get home. Steve Henn, NPR News.