What If I Get Bumped?

With the recent United Airlines incident where a confirmed passenger was forcibly pulled from his seat and dragged off the plane, many may wonder why it happened. Let me tell you why. United Airlines wanted the passenger’s confirmed seat back so they could give it to a United employee!

Airlines, along with hotels, cruise lines, and car rental companies, can and do “overbook” their inventory. This is done to maximize profits as some people cancel their reservations or simply don’t show up. While “overbooking” is a legal practice, if an airline, for example, finds that more confirmed passengers show up for their flight than available seats, the airline is responsible to re-accommodate and compensate affected passengers.

If a confirmed passenger shows up for his flight and met all airline check-in requirements and a seat is not available, we refer to this as getting “bumped” or bumped off a flight. The actual term for being bumped is “denied boarding.”

Airlines are required to ask for volunteers who will give up their confirmed seat in exchange for whatever form of compensation the airline is offering, usually a credit for future travel. If you agree to volunteer, your denied boarding compensation is whatever you agreed to accept. Before agreeing to be a volunteer, ask if your travel credit is transferable, i.e., is it only for you or can you give it to a family member or friend, ask what is the next available flight you will be put on and do these new times work for you. If your delay is long, ask for meal vouchers and, if necessary, a hotel room. (FYI, I was on a JFK-Salt Lake City flight just last week that was asking for volunteers and offering $1300 per person in future airline credit. Not a bad deal.)

If you do not volunteer, you are not required to accept the airline’s offer. As a non-volunteer your denied boarding rights are protected by federal law and regulation. Airlines are required to give you a printed copy of your rights, but only if you ask them for it. (Next time you are about to board a flight, notice the small sign at the departure gate regarding overbooking which also tells you that you are entitled to a copy of your rights.)

With some exceptions, as a non-volunteer here are your rights:

  • You can choose to accept the airlines’ future travel credit offer. You will be told that you will be accommodated on the “next available flight.” Ask when the next available flight is. Will your stay include an overnight hotel? Meal vouchers?
  • As a non-volunteer, if the airline can get you to your destination within one hour of your confirmed flight, the airline legally owes you nothing; although they will often offer some travel credit as a gesture of goodwill.
  • If your delay gets you to your destination within one to two hours of you confirmed flight, the airline is obligated to compensate you 200% of your ticket value for the affected flight up to $650 in cash and a refund on your original ticket.
  • If your delay gets you to your destination within two to four hours of you confirmed flight, the airline is obligated to compensate you 400% of your ticket value for the affected flight up to $1300 in cash and a refund on your original ticket.
  • There are some differences for domestic and international flights.
  • Airlines are not obligated to compensate you for a denied boarding situation if they substitute a smaller aircraft for your flight or on planes with less than 60-seats for weight and balance issues.

Travel can be stressful with crowded airports and airplanes. If you find yourself in an oversell situation and do not volunteer, ask for a written copy of your passenger rights before accepting or signing anything from the airline.

Other Resources:
Fly Rights – A Consumer Guide to Air Travel
Airline Bumping – What You Need to Know

Portions of the travel mentioned here may have been provided at a reduced rate or complimentary by travel suppliers.  Photos are taken in person or provided by the supplier except where credited.

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