How to Avoid Bumping Heads over Bumped Flights

Overbooking has long been a common, and legal, practice in the airline industry. While it might seem counter-intuitive to sell more seats than one actually has, it’s done in anticipation of inevitable no-shows or cancellations. By selling more seats than they have, airlines can immediately recoup those losses instead of scrambling to fill spots at the last minute.

However, inevitable no-shows and cancellations are not always so inevitable, especially when an airline does not provide ticket refunds to their passengers. In the event that everyone shows up and there are more passengers than seats, airlines must bump passengers onto other flights.

Although denied boarding rates have been on the decline for the past several years (a good sign for passengers), the reality is that a sizable number of travelers are bumped each year. In 2016, 475,054 passengers across all twelve U.S airlines were denied boarding; 40,629 of these were involuntary bumps.

With overbooking and bumping here to stay, it is vital for passengers to know their rights and to be aware of how airlines are required to compensate passengers:

Voluntary Bumping

When an airline has overbooked a flight, they are first required to ask for volunteers willing to give up their seats. This is done at the check-in or boarding area, before travelers have gotten onto the plane.

If you’re not on a tight schedule, you may consider volunteering for a later flight (and receiving some compensation for your troubles). But before you commit, make sure to clarify the details:

    • What is the next flight the airline can offer a confirmed seat on?
      Make sure to ask not only when the flight departs, but also the new anticipated arrival time and the boarding gate for that flight.

    • Will the airline provide additional amenities in conjunction with cash?
      Depending on when the next flight is, you could be waiting around for quite some time. Ask if the airline will offer free meals for shorter delays, or a hotel room and free transportation to and from the airport and hotel if you’re required to stay overnight.

    • Are there restrictions associated with free tickets or travel vouchers?
      Airlines will often offer volunteers free tickets or travel vouchers for future flights. Be sure to clarify if there are restrictions around their use. For instance, will the items expire? Would you be able to use the items on blackout dates? Can they be used for international travel, or strictly for domestic trips?

The Department of Transportation (DOT) does not mandate a standard amount or form of compensation for voluntary bumping. Airlines provide employees with guidelines for bargaining with passengers and instructions to accept volunteers requiring the least compensation. If, however, the number of volunteers is less than or equal to the number of needed seats, passengers are in a good position to bargain.

Although the DOT does not require standard compensation for voluntary bumping, all airlines are required to inform volunteers of the possibility of involuntary bumping. They are also required to simultaneously disclose the compensation for this practice.

Involuntary Bumping

When too few volunteers offer their seats back, airlines are then allowed to randomly select and remove individuals from the flight. Because this form of bumping is done against the passenger’s will, the DOT has developed more extensive regulations that ALL U.S. airlines must comply with:

    • Passengers removed involuntarily must be provided a written statement of their rights, as well as a written explanation of how the airline decides who to allow, and who to deny, on an oversold flight.

    • Travelers who have been involuntary removed from a reserved flight are often entitled to compensation, typically as cash or a check. However, the compensation amount is dependent on the price of the original ticket and the duration of the delay. If the airline books new transportation for you, be aware of the these refund requirements:

    For Domestic Travel: Required compensation rates depend on the variance between your original arrival time and the rescheduled arrival at your final destination:

    Within an Hour: No compensation is required

    Between One and Two Hours: The airline owes you 200% of your one-way ticket value, with a maximum return of $675

    More than Two Hours: The airline owes you 400% of your one-way ticket value, with a $1350 maximum

    No Substitute Travel Arrangements Made: The airline owes you 400% of your one-way ticket value, with a $1350 maximum

    For International Travel: Required compensation rates depend on the variance between your original arrival time and the rescheduled arrival at your final destination:

    Within an Hour: No compensation is required

    Between One and Four Hours: The airline owes you 200% of your one-way ticket value, with a maximum return of $675

    More than Four Hours: The airline owes you 400% of your one-way ticket value, with a $1350 maximum

    No Substitute Travel Arrangements Made: The airline owes you 400% of your one-way ticket value, with a $1350 maximum

    NOTE: If your ticket does not display the price, compensation is based on the lowest ticket cost charged on your original flight for the matching service (i.e. economy, business class, first class). A ticket price would not be shown if the ticket was purchased with frequent flyer rewards, or if the ticket was issued by a consolidator.

As with most things, there are certain conditions where the airline isn’t required to compensate involuntarily bumped travelers:

    • If the airline needs to substitute a smaller aircraft for the plane initially scheduled for the trip (like in the event of equipment failure), no refund is required

      • Travelers are always allowed to keep the original ticket to use on or towards another flight. If you prefer to make your own travel arrangements, you may request an ‘involuntary refund’ equal to the ticket value for the bumped flight.

      • If you paid for additional services on the original flight, such as checked baggage and seat selection, and you 1) did not receive the services on your new flight or 2) you were required to pay for the services a second time, the airline must refund the cost.

    • If you booked a seat on a 30 to 60-passenger plane, and passengers need to be bumped to meet safety weight regulations

    • If you missed the check-in deadline

    • If you don’t have a confirmed reservation, or if you canceled your reservation or missed a confirmation deadline

      NOTE: Written confirmations issued by the airline, as well as reservations made on your behalf by an agent or reservation service, are VALID even if your reservation cannot be found in the computer system.

Individual carriers have their own policies governing proper procedure regarding denied boarding. This information is provided when travelers purchase a ticket, but can also be requested at any time prior to departure.

How Can I Guarantee that I Won’t be Bumped?

Unfortunately, there’s no definitive means to avoid being bumped, especially since airlines have different boarding priorities influencing bumping selections: some bump passengers with the lowest fares first, while others bump the passengers who were the last to check in.

Regardless of an airline’s boarding priorities, showing up early is the best way to reduce your odds of getting bumped. Airlines that prioritize ticket cost over check-in order will sometimes select the last passenger to check in per fare class.

So always assume the traffic to the airport will be obscene, and that check-in lines will be out the door. Better to spend some extra time at the airport before your flight then more time afterwards because you’re waiting for a new one!

 

Information found in this article has been summarized from resources provided by the Department of Transportation’s. Visit their website for more consumer right’s information.

Additional Resources here, here, and here.

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