Overbooked plane, denied boarding or bumping are common occurrences when using airlines. Know what you’re rights are when it comes to these issues.
An overbooked plane are not illegal, and most airlines overbook their scheduled flights to a certain extent in order to compensate for “no-shows.” Passengers are sometimes left behind or “bumped” as a result. When an overbooked plane occurs, the Department of Transportation (DOT) requires airlines to ask people who aren’t in a hurry to give up their seats voluntarily, in exchange for compensation. Those passengers bumped against their will, with a few exceptions, are entitled to compensation.
Almost any planeload of airline passengers includes some people with urgent travel needs and others who may be more concerned about the cost of their tickets than about getting to their destination on time. DOT rules require airlines to seek out passengers who are willing to give up their seats for compensation before bumping anyone involuntarily when there is an overbooked plane.
Here’s how this works. At the check-in or boarding area, airline employees will look for volunteers when it appears that there is an overbooked plane. If passengers are not in a rush to arrive at their next destination, they can give their reservation back to the airline in exchange for compensation and a later flight. But before they do this, they may want to get answers to these important questions:
- When is the next flight on which the airline can confirm a seat? The alternate flight may be just as acceptable. On the other hand, if the airline offers to put a passenger on standby on another flight that’s full, they could be stranded again.
- Will the airline provide other amenities such as free meals, a hotel room, transfers between the hotel and the airport, and a phone card? If not, passengers might have to spend the money it offers on food or lodging while they wait for the next flight.
DOT has not mandated the form or amount of compensation that airlines offer to volunteers. DOT does, however, require airlines to advise any volunteer whether he or she might be involuntarily bumped and, if that were to occur, the amount of compensation that would be due.
Carriers can negotiate with their passengers for mutually acceptable compensation for an overbooked plane. Airlines generally offer a free trip or other transportation benefits to prospective volunteers. The airlines give employees guidelines for bargaining with passengers, and they may select those volunteers willing to sell back their reservations for the lowest price.
If the airline offers a free ticket or a transportation voucher in a certain dollar amount, ask about restrictions. For how long is the ticket or voucher good? Is it “blacked out” during holiday periods when passengers might want to use it? Can it be used for international flights ? These are all important questions to ask when there’s an overbooked plane.
Even with free tickets, many times airline personnel up the ante. If originally the airline needed 10 volunteers and only five passengers volunteered to be bumped, the gate personnel may offer cash as well. It is like an auction, and they seem to start at $200 plus a seat on the next flight. The top price I have seen while a passenger was $800 and a ticket on the next flight, which resulted in almost half the plane volunteering. The first one to the airline representative got the deal. Naturally, everyone who had settled for no cash and only a free ticket, or less than $800, felt mistreated. As my brother says, “That’s life on the Ponderosa.”
Another friend who really wanted to get on a flight, and who knew the rules and regulations, was told by the airline that he would be denied boarding or “bumped.” They said he would get a $500 coupon and have to fly the next day. He told the gate agent that the airline needed to give him $1,350 in cash and showed the agent the regulation he had pulled up in his cell phone. The gate agent went aboard the flight and found another volunteer (ostensibly who accepted far less than $1,350 in cash). My friend boarded the flight and got to his destination on time.
Some flyers have made volunteering to be bumped a part of their check-in routine. As soon as they get to the gate, they ask if the flight is overbooked. If the answer is yes, they let the gate personnel know they are willing to volunteer. This places their name near the top of the list for bumping and getting a free ticket or airline scrip to anywhere in the airline’s continental U.S. system. One Sunday after Thanksgiving, I managed three free domestic tickets by successfully volunteering to be bumped from three flights in a row. If passengers have time, it means free transportation for them and makes life more pleasant for the airline personnel.
Sometimes it doesn’t even work to dangle escalating compensation for voluntary bumpees before an overbooked plane. If there aren’t enough volunteers, some passengers will be left behind involuntarily. This is where the regulation comes into play.
DOT requires each airline to give all passengers who are bumped involuntarily a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn’t.
Travelers who don’t get to fly are entitled to denied boarding compensation in the form of a check or cash. The amount depends on the price of their ticket and the length of the delay caused by an overbooked plane:
- If passengers are bumped involuntarily and the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to get them to their final destination (including a later connection) within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time, there is no compensation.
- If the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after your original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay passengers an amount equal to 200% of their one-way fare to their final destination that day, with a $675 maximum.
- If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get passengers to their destination more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles (400% of your one-way fare, $1350 maximum).
- If a ticket does not show a fare (for example, a frequent-flyer award ticket or a ticket issued by a consolidator), the denied boarding compensation is based on the lowest cash, check or credit card payment charged for a ticket in the same class of service (e.g., coach, first class) on that flight.
- Passengers always get to keep their original ticket and use it on the next flight arranged by the airline. Or, they can get their money back and cancel the trip. The denied boarding compensation is essentially a payment for their inconvenience.
- If a passenger paid for optional services on their original flight (e.g., seat selection, checked baggage) and did not receive those services on a substitute flight or were required to pay a second time, the airline that denied boarding must refund those payments.
Like all rules, however, there are a few conditions and exceptions:
- To be eligible for compensation, passengers must have a confirmed reservation. A written confirmation issued by the airline or an authorized agent or reservation service qualifies passengers in this regard even if the airline can’t find the passenger’s reservation in the computer, as long as the traveler didn’t cancel their reservation or miss a reconfirmation deadline.
- Each airline has a check-in deadline, which is the amount of time before scheduled departure that you must present yourself to the airline at the airport. For domestic flights, most carriers require passengers to be at the departure gate between 10 minutes and 30 minutes before scheduled departure, but some deadlines can be an hour or longer. Check-in deadlines on international flights can be as much as three hours before scheduled departure time. Some airlines may simply require passengers to be at the ticket/baggage counter by this time; most, however, require that passengers get all the way to the boarding area. Some may have deadlines at both locations. If passengers miss the check-in deadline, they may have lost their reservation and the right to compensation if there is an overbooked plane.
- As noted above, no compensation is due if the airline arranges substitute transportation which is scheduled to arrive at a passenger’s destination within one hour of the originally scheduled arrival time. (This sometimes happens when a “bumped” passenger, originally scheduled on a connecting flight, is placed on a non-stop flight instead.)
- If the airline must substitute a smaller plane for the one it originally planned to use, the carrier isn’t required to pay people who are bumped as a result. In addition, on flights using aircraft with 30 through 60 passenger seats, compensation is not required if passengers were bumped due to safety-related aircraft weight or balance constraints.
- The rules do not apply to charter flights, or to scheduled flights operated with planes that hold fewer than 30 passengers. They don’t apply to international flights inbound to the United States, although some airlines on these routes may follow them voluntarily. Also, if passengers are flying between two foreign cities — from Paris to Rome, for example — these rules will not apply. The European Commission has a rule on bumpings that occur in an EC country; ask the airline for details or read our chapter on EU rules.
- Passengers are always free to decline the denied boarding check and take the airline to court to try to obtain more compensation. A recent Supreme Court ruling holds that federal airline regulations do not prevent bumped passengers from suing in state court to recover their financial losses. This might be because a planned tour had to be canceled or a cruise is missed. The DOT’s denied boarding regulation only spells out the airlines’ minimum obligation to people they bump involuntarily.
Beware: When you volunteer to be bumped and are held back from the flight, the flight crew may find a space once a physical passenger count is completed. In this case you will have to get back on your scheduled flight, but, perhaps, without your original seat. This rarely happens, but it has been reported.
Airlines set their own “boarding priorities” — the order in which they will bump different categories of passengers in an oversale situation. When a flight is oversold and there are not enough volunteers, some airlines bump passengers with the lowest fares first. Others bump the last passengers to check in.
After purchasing a ticket, the most effective way to reduce the risk of being bumped is to get to the airport early. For passengers in the same fare class, the last passengers to check in are usually the first to be bumped, even if they have met the check-in deadline. Allow extra time; assume that the roads are backed up, the parking lot is full, and there is a long line at the check-in counter.
Airlines bargain with passengers faced with an oversold situation. The airline may offer free tickets or dollar-amount vouchers for future flights in place of a check for denied boarding compensation. However, if a passenger is bumped involuntarily, they have the right to insist on a check if that is their preference. Once they cash the check (or accept the free flight), they will probably lose the ability to pursue more money from the airline later on. However, if being bumped costs passengers more money than the airline will pay at the airport, try to negotiate a higher settlement with their complaint department. If this doesn’t work, passengers usually have 30 days from the date on the check to decide if they want to accept the amount of the check. Passengers are always free to decline the check (e.g., not cash it) and take the airline to court to try to obtain more compensation. DOT’s denied boarding regulation spells out the airlines’ minimum obligation to people they bump involuntarily.
Finally, don’t be a “no-show.” If passengers are holding confirmed reservations they don’t plan to use, notify the airline. If not, the airlines will cancel all onward or return reservations on the trip under the same reservation codes.