Last Updated on December 1, 2023
Now that airlines have elevated “overbooking” to an art form, passengers are being “bumped” from overbooked flights more regularly.
Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Updated for 2023
By Jim Ferri
Whether you’re flying from New York or New Orleans, Lisbon or London, airlines continue overbooking to compensate for “no-shows” all the time. Simply put, they sell more tickets than they have available seats. And it’s not an illegal practice. But the US Department of Transportation (DOT) has rules to protect you.
When there are too many passengers for the seat available, the first things people wonder is who gets bumped on the overbooked flight? The answer is that it now varies since the airlines must follow DOT’s strict set of rules.
Whenever passengers need to leave a flight, airlines must first ask for volunteers. Then they usually sweeten their request with some type of compensation, such cash, a voucher, or a free ticket. None of the latter is a DOT requirement, however.
There is one most important thing to remember when passengers must receive compensation for an airline overbooking a flight. And that is 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 several years ago, 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.
Table of Contents
It’s A Bargaining Game When Overbooking Flights
But before you grab any offer, ask a few questions, since overbooking is 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. There is something to remember if the airline puts you on another flight that is full and you don’t board. That is you may have to stay at the airport for a long time without any additional compensation.
Also inquire if any free ticket offered has restrictions. Is there an expiration date, any blackout dates, is it good domestically and internationally, etc.?
Without sufficient volunteers, passengers (usually those with the lowest fares) must leave involuntarily when there is overbooking on a flight. Each must receive a written statement explaining how the carrier chooses whom to bump. In addition, DOT requires that airlines sometimes give you cash or a check as “denied boarding compensation,” known as DBC.
When Bumped Passengers are NOT Eligible for Compensation
There are a number of overbooking situations when passengers are involuntarily bumped and are not eligible for compensation.
These include the following:
- Operational or Safety Reasons – if the airline substitutes a smaller plane for the original larger aircraft. 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 the airline puts the passenger is in a less expensive seat. In this case the carrier must only refund the difference between the two tickets.
- Charter flights do not require any compensation for overbooking.
- Passengers aboard an aircraft holding 30 or fewer passengers do not receive any compensation.
- 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 you are lucky. Then 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 overbooking on a 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 Overbooking-Flight Compensation
In regard to compensation for an overbooking a 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 original 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 they must pay you an amount equal to double the price of the one-way fare (of your original flight) to your destination that day, with a cap of $675 on the overbooking compensation. Note that is only the minimum amount that the law requires 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 must 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 for overbooking at the airport the same day. If you depart on another 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.” The you will get all your money back from your original ticket and can go make your own travel arrangements.
But if you feel your overbooking 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.
You may also enjoy: Airline Loopholes That Work Against Bumped Passengers / How to Claim Flight Delay Compensation on EU Airlines / How To File for Compensation for Delayed / Cancelled European Flights
The Fine Print on Overbooking
There are, however, a couple of important restrictions and loopholes that benefit the airlines. You should know about them if you’re seeking compensation for them overbooking your 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 must pay you. That’s required as long as you still have your reservation, or haven’t 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. On domestic flights some carriers stipulate only that you be at the gate 10-30 minutes before departure. On some international flights, however, 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 an overbooking 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 they can remove you 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 shower before you leave for the airport.