Passengers’ Rights: What to Do If Your Flight Is Overbooked

Most airlines oversell tickets assuming not all passengers will show up for their flight.  So what happens if everybody DOES show up? First they ask for volunteers, offering them compensation. Then they start bumping people. What are your rights and options if this happens?

imageLof-departure-gate-at-bangkok-international-airport
A departure gate at Bangkok Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

Airlines and Aviation

Getting bumped from your flight – it’s the worst nightmare of some airline passengers and a dream come true for others.

I had a friend who would deliberately show up at the check-in counter at the last possible minute hoping that one of two things would happen …

  • The economy class cabin would already be full, and he would be upgraded to business class; or …
  • The entire flight would be full, and he would be put on a later flight together with either cash compensation or vouchers for a future flight.

It did sometimes happen to him, and it did once happen to me when a computer glitch resulted in a double-booked flight, meaning 200-plus passengers could not be accommodated.

When I got to the gate, there was a large crowd, and an announcement was made. The situation was explained and volunteers were asked for.

In exchange for accepting passage on a chartered flight the following day, we were offered hard cash or flight vouchers together with hotel accommodation for the night, transportation to the hotel, and a voucher for dinner at the hotel’s restaurant.

The combined value of the two flight vouchers was greater than that of the hard cash so I accepted the vouchers.

As I was to learn to my chagrin when I tried to cash in the vouchers several months later, they could not be used for the same flight. Not only that, they had so many other restrictions that I was never able to cash them in.

The flight vouchers were, simply put, not worth the paper they were printed on. So I helped the airline out of a jam, and I got absolutely NOTHING in return.

Even the dinner voucher was a scam. I was offered a set menu that was not to my liking. Not even a single glass of house wine was included.

Technological Improvements

image-of-departure-entrance-at-phuket-international-aiport
Most passengers board their flights without a hitch. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

With technological improvements and better data management, the strategies employed by my friend to get upgrades, cash, or flight vouchers would be much less likely to work today. Most passengers nowadays are able to board their flights without a hitch.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), most airline passengers have no problem getting to their destination. Issues such as the passenger who was brutally removed from a United Airlines flight a couple of years back are rare.

But there are exceptions, and occasionally passengers do get bumped or denied boarding when there are more passengers than seats on a given flight.

No Shows

To the surprise of many airline passengers, most airlines routinely overbook flights because they know from experience that a certain number of passengers – on average – don’t show up. They are known as “no shows”.

Based on complex computer-based formulae, airlines estimate the number of no shows – which can vary from day to day and flight to flight – and they usually get it right.

From the airlines’ point of view, this is a simple issue of optimizing capacity, which not only strengthens their bottom lines, it also – they claim – allows them to reduce the price of tickets.

Exceptions

The practice is not illegal, and airlines usually get it right. Every once in a while, however, everybody that has booked a ticket shows up for their flight, and the airline has to determine who is not going get on board.

There is another scenario: sometimes an airline has to substitute a smaller aircraft than the one originally assigned to the flight (perhaps there were technical difficulties or the original aircraft was delayed by weather).

In this case, there aren’t enough seats to accommodate the number of passengers booked on the flight, and the airline can’t accommodate everyone with a confirmed reservation.

In yet another scenario, an airline has to make room for a Federal Air Marshall.

Passenger’s Rights – Volunteers

Under U.S. law, before an airline forces passengers to give up their seats, they must first ask for volunteers, offering them compensation.

Generally speaking, this means either vouchers or cash, and in many cases airlines prefer offering vouchers because they know from experience that many (if not most) of the vouchers will never be cashed in.

“There is no limit to the amount of money or vouchers that the airline may offer, and passengers are free to negotiate with the airline,” DOT says.

“If an airline offers a reduced rate ticket, free ticket, or voucher to passengers in exchange for volunteering to fly on a different flight, the airline must tell passengers about any and all restrictions that may apply to the use of the reduced rate ticket, free ticket, or voucher before passengers decide whether or not to give up their confirmed reserved space on the currently oversold flight.”

If you are flying within the United States, that is what the law says, but it is not necessarily what airline staff will tell you.

In their bid to get volunteers, airline staff don’t always explain what’s in the fine print, as in, “What they don’t know, won’t hurt them.”

So it is necessary to know your rights and ask the following questions before accepting compensation for taking a later flight:

  • Can the airline offer you a CONFIRMED reservation on a later flight (if so, when will it depart) or will you be put on stand-by?
  • If you are put on standby, when will the next available flight depart? You could be stuck at the airport for hours – or even overnight. And not all airport terminals are open 24 hours.
  • Will the airline offer meals, a hotel room, transfers between the airport and the hotel, and a phone card in addition to your compensation? If not, your “compensation” could be used up paying for these services, and you could end up breaking even – or in the red.
  • Before accepting a voucher for a future flight, you should ask how long it will be good for, if there are black-out periods, if it can be used for international flights, if you can give it to a friend, and if there are any other restrictions.

Keep in mind that vouchers usually have many restrictions, making them difficult to cash in. Unless you are a frequent traveler, you should usually hold out for cash – even if the amount offered is less than the value of the voucher.

If You Are Bumped Against Your Will …

image-of-check-in-counter-at-bangkok-international-airport
Checking in early can lesson your chances of being bumped from a flight. Photo Credit: Accidental Travel Writer.

So, what happens if an airline asks for volunteers, and there are no takers? When this occurs, it’s up to the airline to decide who gets bumped (or denied boarding), and each airline has its own set of criteria, which is not usually publicized. They can include …

  • When you checked in;
  • If you have been assigned a seat;
  • When you arrived at the gate;
  • The order in which you boarded the plane;
  • How much you paid for your ticket (those paying full price would probably be given preference over those buying discounted tickets);
  • If you are a member of the airline’s frequent flyer programme (and your status); and
  • The class you are flying (First Class having preference over Business Class, Business Class over Premier Economy, and Premier Economy over Economy). Keep in mind, however, if you are downgraded from First Class to Business Class, etc., you are only entitled to the difference in the fare and no further compensation.

The government only steps in if there is a case of “unjust or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage”, a.k.a. “discrimination” or “racial profiling”.  Examples would include using “a passenger’s race or ethnicity as a criterion,” DOT says.

Written Statement

If you are involuntarily bumped from a flight in the United States, the airline should give you a written statement describing your rights and explaining how it has decided who is getting bumped.

If the airline does not offer a written statement, you should ask for it.

Compensation Criteria

According to DOT, if you are bumped from a flight for the following reasons, you are usually entitled to compensation if you meet the following criteria:

  • You have a confirmed reservation;
  • You have checked in on time;
  • You arrived at the departure gate on time; and
  • The airline can’t get you to your destination within one hour of the scheduled arrival time.

Denied Boarding Compensation – Domestic

If you are involuntarily denied boarding, your Denied Boarding Compensation (DBC) will be based on the price you paid for your ticket, the length of time you are delayed in getting to your destination because of being denied boarding, and whether your flight is to another travel destination within the United States or to a foreign travel destination.

Within One Hour – for flight delays of up to one hour, the airline is not required to offer you compensation.

One to Two Hours – for flight delays of between one and two hours, the airline is required to offer 200% of the one-way fare up to US$675.

More Than Two Hours – for flight delays exceeding two hours, the airline is required to offer 400% of the one-way fare up to US$1,350.

Please note: your late arrival MUST have been caused by being denied boarding for your scheduled flight. A simple flight delay will not result in compensation.

Denied Boarding Compensation – International

Contrary to what you might think, the mandatory compensation for international flights is less generous than for domestic flights.

Within One Hour – for flight delays of up to one hour, the airline is not required to offer you compensation.

One to Four Hours – for flight delays of between one and four hours, the airline is required to offer 200% of the one-way fare up to US$675.

More Than Four Hours – for flight delays exceeding four hours, the airline is required to offer 400% of the one-way fare up to US$1,350.

Please note: your late arrival MUST have been caused by being denied boarding for your scheduled flight. A simple flight delay will not result in compensation.

Please Note …

You should be offered compensation at the airport on the same day.

You are entitled to hard cash or a cheque. You do NOT have to settle for a flight voucher.

If the airline cannot pay you before offering you substitute transportation from the airport, it must pay you within 24 hours of your being bumped.

The above amounts of compensation are the MINIMUM amounts stipulated by U.S. law, but airlines can offer greater amounts of compensation if they so desire.

Exceptions

There are certain situations in which airlines are not required to offer passengers compensation for being bumped from an oversold flight:

Change of Aircraft – if for operational or safety reasons the airline substitutes a smaller plane than the one originally assigned to the flight, it does not have to compensate you.

Weight and Balance – if the airline has to bump passengers from planes with 60 or fewer seats for weight or balance reasons affecting operations or safety, it does not have to compensate you.

Downgrading – if the airline downgrades you from a higher class of seating to a lower class, it only has to compensate you for the difference in price.

Charter Flights – if the flight has been chartered for a specific trip that is not a part of its regular schedule, it does not have to compensate you.

Small Aircraft – if you are bumped from a flight on a plane holding fewer than 30 passengers, you are not entitled to compensation.

International flights to the United States – if you are bumped from a flight departing from a foreign country to the United States, the airline does not have to compensate you. Many airlines will, however, do so.

Other Reasons for Removal

There are situations in which an airline can legally remove you from a flight without compensation if you violate its contract of carriage. Examples include …

  • You are intoxicated or under the influence of illegal drugs;
  • You attempt to interfere with the duties of a flight crew member;
  • You disrupt flight operations or engage in unruly behavior;
  • You have an offensive odor that is not caused by a disability or illness.

FAA regulations state that “no person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crew member in the performance of the crew member’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated.”

Acts of Nature

Please keep in mind if flights are cancelled because of so-called acts of nature, such as bad weather, airlines are not legally obligated to offer compensation, lodging, meals, transportation, or other kinds of support.

Flight Vouchers or Cash

If you are bumped from a flight, the airline might offer you a choice of cash compensation or vouchers for a future flight.

If you are a frequent flier on this airline, you might want to accept the voucher. Just make sure to read the fine print to make sure you will be able to use it. Look for black-out dates, expiration deadlines, and other restrictions – such as if it can only be used on full-fare tickets or domestic flights.

What if you don’t fly this airline regularly?

Generally speaking, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. When it comes to compensation for missing your flight, that usually means hard cash is better than a flight voucher – even if the amount is less.

Remember: Passengers have a right to demand cash or a cheque on the spot. You do NOT have to accept a flight voucher.

The information in this post should not be considered legal advice. Also, laws and regulations can change. You should do your own due diligence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply