How to Avoid Getting Bumped – and What to Do if You Are

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The following information about denied boarding compensation is applicable to flights departing from the USA.

Imagine a situation in which your favorite restaurant regularly accepts more reservations than they can actually seat customers.  Not only that, but they require you to pay for the entire meal up-front.  The only way to find out if you’ll be seated and actually able to enjoy the meal you’ve paid for is to show up at the establishment and take your chances.  Maybe you’ll have a nice dinner, maybe you’ll be sent on your way.  If this sounds like a crazy business model that no one could possibly adopt successfully, then you just haven’t been on a commercial flight lately.

Here’s a simple truth about the airline industry.  Airlines oversell flights.  A lot.  And when they do, some passengers who have already paid in full for their tickets will be turned away.  This situation is called “denied boarding”, AKA “getting bumped”.  Other terms for this include offloading and deplaning, although both are generally associated with actually being on the plane and then removed, a situation that is becoming increasingly common.

The reason airlines sell more tickets than there are seats available on the aircraft is that some passengers don’t show up for the flight. This is an overly simplified explanation – there are lots of justifications made in favor of denied boarding policies, most of them economic – but in essence, the airlines sell too many tickets in order to ensure that the seats are as full as possible, at least in the coach section of the cabin.  But is it always the case that at least a few passengers fail to show up for every flight? The answer is no, meaning that, at times, some passengers are going to get the bump.

Passengers can be denied boarding either voluntarily or involuntarily.  If you’re involuntarily denied boarding at a US airport, you’re entitled to a certain amount of compensation from the airline (see below for details).  If you volunteer to be bumped, you can use this amount as the baseline to negotiate an even better deal for yourself.  If there are lots of passengers willing to accept the airline’s first offer, you won’t have much leverage with the airline.  However, if there aren’t enough passengers willing to give up their seats, you can make out pretty well sometimes, especially if you’re willing to accept travel vouchers or credits instead of cash.

Boarding Priority

If a flight is oversold, the airline must ask for volunteers to give up their seats in return for compensation, the amount of which is determined by the airline.  If enough passengers accept the offer, no one will be denied boarding.  If not enough passengers accept, one or more passengers will be denied boarding, based on boarding priority rules as set forth in Rule 245: Denied Boarding Compensation of the airline’s contract of carriage.

While not set in stone and differing from airline to airline, passengers are generally boarded in the following order:

  • Premium cabins and service classes (first class, business class, premium economy)
  • Frequent flyer program elites, in order by status level
  • Passengers with boarding passes (check in online 24 hours before your flight to get this)
    • Frequent flyer program members with elite status, including from partner airlines
    • Other frequent flyer program members, including from partner airlines
    • All other passengers
  • Passengers without boarding passes
    • Passengers rebooked as a result of a delay or cancellation of a previous flight
    • Frequent flyer program members with elite status, including from partner airlines
    • All other passengers

Amount of Denied Boarding Compensation – Domestic Flights

Domestic passengers involuntarily bumped at US airports are entitled to denied boarding compensation ranging from alternate flights to 400% of the fare to the first stopover or final destination if no stopovers.  Compensation is based on the one-way fare to the first destination, not the cost of the entire round-trip ticket.

If the airline can get you to your first stopover or destination no later than:

  • One hour after your original planned arrival time, you get no denied boarding compensation.
  • Two hours after your planned arrival time, you get 200% of the one-way fare with a maximum of $650

If the airline does not offer flights that will allow you to arrive within 2 hours of your original planned arrival, you are entitled to 400% of the one-way fare, with a maximum of $1,300.

Amount of Denied Boarding Compensation – International Flights

International passengers involuntarily bumped at US airports are entitled to denied boarding compensation ranging from alternate flights to 400% of the fare to the first stopover or final destination if no stopovers.  Compensation is based on the one-way fare to the first destination, not the cost of the entire round-trip ticket.

If the airline can get you to your first stopover or destination no later than:

  • One hour after your original planned arrival time, you get no denied boarding compensation.
  • Four hours after your planned arrival time, you get 200% of the one-way fare with a maximum of $650

If the airline does not offer flights that will allow you to arrive within four hours of your original planned arrival, you are entitled to 400% of the one-way fare, with a maximum of $1,300.

Form of Payment

Airlines must offer passengers who are denied boarding involuntarily cash or check payments immediately.  The airline can offer travel vouchers in lieu of the cash payment but it is entirely up to the passenger whether to accept it or insist instead on the cash or check.

Passenger Options

Once you’ve accepted compensation, the airline is relieved of liability.  If you prefer, you have the right to refuse all compensation and you can seek to recover your damages in court.  If you’ve been involuntarily denied boarding and the airline refuses to offer compensation and/or alternate travel arrangements,  you can file a complaint with the US Department of Transportation.

Tips to Reduce the Chances of Being Bumped

– Join the airline’s frequent flyer program – it’s free and takes about 2 minutes or less.

– Buy a refundable fare rather than a discount fare (although this tends to be prohibitively expensive)

– Check in for the flight and print your boarding pass as early as possible – this is usually 24-72 hours before the flight depending on the type of fare purchased and status within the airline’s frequent flyer program.

– Buy your ticket as early as possible – the timestamps on the tickets and boarding passes are one of the factors used to determine boarding priority

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