By Jim Ferri
Now that airlines have elevated “overbooking” to an art form, passengers are being “bumped” from flights more regularly.
Since airlines overbook to compensate for “no-shows” all the time – and it’s not an illegal practice – the US Department of Transportation has rules to protect you.
Whenever passengers need to be bumped, airlines are required to first ask for volunteers, and they usually sweeten their request with some type of compensation, such cash, a voucher, or a free ticket, although none is required by DOT.
The most important thing to remember is that when compensating a passenger for an overbooked flight, there is no limit to the amount of money or number of vouchers an airline may offer, and passengers are free to negotiate with the airline.
For example, on a flight between Newark, New Jersey and Honolulu recently, United Airlines gave passengers $10,000 each to downgrade from business class to premium economy on a flight. The original plane, a Boeing 777, was downgraded to a Boeing 767-300, a smaller jet with fewer business-class seats, and nine passengers were moved to United’s version of premium economy. Do not, however, expect this to happen to you.
It’s a Bargaining Game on Overbooked Flights
But before you grab any offer, ask a few questions, since it’s all a bargaining game.
When is the next flight on which they’ll provide a confirmed seat? If it’s not soon, ask if they’ll provide meal / hotel vouchers, since you don’t want to spend your compensation. Remember that if the airline puts you on another flight that is full and you don’t board, you could be stuck at the airport for a long time without any additional compensation.
Also inquire if any free ticket offered has restrictions – an expiration date, any blackout dates, is it good domestically and internationally, etc.?
Without sufficient volunteers, passengers (usually those with the lowest fares) are then bumped involuntarily from an overbooked flight. Each must be given a written statement explaining how the carrier chooses whom to bump. In addition, DOT requires you sometimes be given cash or a check as “denied boarding compensation,” known as DBC.
When Bumped Passengers are NOT Eligible for Compensation
There are a number of situations when passengers are involuntarily bumped and are not eligible to be compensated.
These include the following:
- Operational or Safety Reasons – if a smaller plane is substituted for the original larger you needn’t be compensated. Obviously, in the United situation mentioned above, the airline was not required to make restitution but did so to mollify those who had purchased more expensive tickets.
- Weight and Balance – when the airline is coping with weight and balance restrictions on aircraft with 60 or fewer passengers.
- Downgrading – if a passenger is downgraded to a less expensive seat, the carier is only required to refund the difference between the two tickets.
- Charter flights do not require any compensation.
- Passengers aboard an aircraft holding 30 or fewer passengers are not required to be compensated.
- Passengers on flights departing from overseas to the US will not receive any compensation dictated by US law. But if you’re flying from most airports in Europe, lucky you, since you are covered by EU law, which usually stipulates greater compensation than US law. Read How To File for Compensation for Delayed / Cancelled European Flights.
Situations When Bumped Passengers ARE Eligible for Compensation
If you are not bumped for one of the reasons stated above, you must be compensated for an overbooked flight if you are involuntarily denied boarding and meet the following criteria:
- You have a confirmed reservation
- You checked in on time
- You arrived at the gate on time
- The airline cannot get you to your original destination within one hour of the scheduled arrival time
One Hour – the Time to Keep in Mind on Overbooked-Flight Compensation
In regard to compensation for an overbooked flight, “one hour” is the time to keep in mind. Current regulations stipulate if the carrier can still get you to your destination within one hour of your originally scheduled arrival time, it needn’t make any compensation.
But if your new flight will get you to your destination one to two hours later than your originally scheduled arrival (on an international flight, one to four hours), they need to reach for their checkbook.
In that case you must be paid an amount equal to double the price of the one-way fare (of the flight from which you were bumped) to your destination that day, with a cap of $675 on the compensation. Note that is only the minimum amount required by law and they can pay you more a la United.
If the new flight will get you to your destination two or more hours later (or four or more hours on an international flight) the airline is required to pay you 400% of that one-way fare, up to a maximum of $1,350. The same holds true if your carrier cannot provide you with any substitute travel arrangements.
Also, the carrier must compensate you at the airport the same day. If you depart on a substituted flight arranged by the carrier before receiving compensation, they must pay you within 24 hours of the incident.
Of course, if you don’t want to take the flight on which an airline may want to rebook you, you can always request an “involuntary refund,” get all your money back from your original ticket and go make your own travel arrangements.
But if you feel your negotiations haven’t been productive and your compensation isn’t sufficient, don’t rush to cash the check. Later on you might want to attempt to negotiate a higher amount with the carrier’s customer service people or complaint department. And, of course, there’s always the legal remedy, aka the small claims court.
The Fine Print
There are, however, a couple of important restrictions and loopholes that benefit the airlines you should know about if you’re seeking compensation for an overbooked flight.
First of all, you need to have proof of a confirmed reservation. Even if you’ve gone missing in their computer system, if you have a confirmation in-hand (such as your ticket, etc.) they’re required to pay you as long as you haven’t canceled your reservation, or neglected to reconfirm it if you were required to do so.
Second, and this is important, you must also have checked-in by the deadline stipulated by the carrier. But be careful here – while some carriers stipulate only that you be at the gate 10-30 minutes before departure, on some international flights they require you to be there hours before the schedule departure time. Miss the check-in deadline and you may not only lose your seat, but any chance at compensation, as well. Just think of all those gate announcements you hear asking so-and-so to come to the gate.
And, finally, be aware that there are other reasons when you can be removed from a flight. These include being intoxicated or under the influence of illegal drugs; interfering with a crew member or disrupting operations; unruly behavior; and “having an offensive odor that is not caused by a disability or illness.”
Make a note to take a bath before you leave for the airport.