While the violent removal of a passenger from an overbooked United Airlines flight got a lot of press, the reality is that it's common for airlines to overbook flights, and bump passengers as a result. Whether passengers volunteer to be bumped in return for compensation — or the airline has to choose passengers to bump involuntarily — here's how the process works, and what to expect if it happens to you.
Airlines regularly oversell their flights, betting that there will be enough changes that will ensure that every passenger will get a seat on any given flight. But there are times when everyone shows, or there's an event -- like weather or a mechanical problem -- that can leave airlines scrambling to get passenger butts into seats. When that happens, every airline has what is called a Contract of Carriage, which outlines what the carrier will to get you to your final destination.
As a passenger, it can be incredibly frustrating to arrive and check in at the airport, only to look at your boarding pass and realize that you have no seat assignment. The airlines can't just bump you willy-nilly -- there is a process, outlined by the U.S. Department of Transportation. When a flight is oversold, DOT first requires airlines to ask people who aren't in a hurry to get to their final destination to volunteer to give up their seats, in exchange for compensation.
But before you volunteer, ask two questions:
- When is the next flight on which the airline can confirm your seat? The alternate flight may be just as acceptable to you. On the other hand, if the airline offers to put you on standby on another flight that's full, you could be stranded.
- Will the airline provide other amenities such as free meals, a hotel room and transfers between the hotel and the airport? If not, you might have to spend the money it offers you on food or lodging while you wait for the next flight.
The key here is to negotiate for acceptable compensation. Airlines usually offer vouchers for future flights, but they do give employees guidelines for bargaining. Ask with passengers, and they may select those volunteers willing to sell back their reservations for the lowest price. If the airline offers you a free ticket or a transportation voucher in a certain dollar amount, remember to ask about the restrictions. You need to know how long is the ticket or voucher good for, whether it's blacked out during holiday travel periods and can it be used for international flights.
If the airline doesn't get enough volunteers, then it will involuntarily bump passengers. In that case, you are also eligible for compensation, and you have certain rights. If you are bumped involuntarily and the airline arranges transportation that will get you to your final destination within an hour of your original arrival time, you will not be compensated.
If the substitute transportation gets you to your destination between one and two hours after your original arrival time (or between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay you an amount equal to 200 percent of your one-way fare to your final destination that day, with a $650 maximum.
If the transportation gets you to your 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 to 400 percent of your one-way fare at a $1300 maximum.
For those who used frequent-flyer points or a ticket issued by a consolidator, compensation is based on the lowest cash, check or credit card payment charged for a ticket in the same class of service on that flight.
Bumped travelers always get to keep their original ticket and use it on another flight. If you choose to make your own arrangements, you can request an "involuntary refund" for the ticket for the flight you were bumped from.
If you paid fees for optional services on your original flight, like seat selection or checked baggage and you did not receive those services on your substitute flight or were required to pay a second time, the airline that bumped you must give you a refund.
Some general guidelines that airlines use to determine who will be bumped are: those who didn't choose a seat when booking a flight; those who check in at the last minute; those who aren't at the gate 30 minutes before take-off; and travelers who book the lowest fares. Airlines may offer free tickets or dollar-amount vouchers for future flights, you are entitled to ask for a check for compensation.