When you are involuntarily bumped from a flight, you can get cash (a check or credit on your credit card) from airlines.
Those are the rules. If passengers choose to bargain with the airlines at the gate, that’s their choice. But, travelers involuntarily bumped can get as much as $1,350.
Overbooking is not illegal, and most airlines overbook their scheduled flights to a certain extent in order to compensate for “no-shows.” Passengers are sometimes left behind or “bumped from a flight” as a result. When an oversale occurs, the Department of Transportation (DOT) requires airlines to ask people who aren’t in a hurry to give up their seats voluntarily, in exchange for compensation. Those passengers bumped against their will, with a few exceptions, are entitled to compensation.
Carriers can negotiate with their passengers for mutually acceptable compensation. Airlines generally offer a free trip or other transportation benefits to prospective volunteers. The airlines give employees guidelines for bargaining with passengers, and they may select those volunteers willing to sell back their reservations for the lowest price.
If the airline offers a free ticket or a transportation voucher in a certain dollar amount, ask about restrictions. For how long is the ticket or voucher good? Is it “blacked out” during holiday periods when passengers might want to use it? Can it be used for international flights?
Even with free tickets, many times airline personnel up the ante. If originally the airline needed 10 volunteers and only five passengers volunteered to be bumped from a flight, the gate personnel may offer cash as well. It is like an auction, and they seem to start at $200 plus a seat on the next flight. The top price I have seen while a passenger was $800 and a ticket on the next flight, which resulted in almost half the plane volunteering. The first one to the airline representative got the deal. Naturally, everyone who had settled for no cash and only a free ticket, or less than $800, felt mistreated. As my brother says, “That’s life on the Ponderosa.”
Another friend who really wanted to get on a flight, and who knew the rules and regulations, was told by the airline that he would be denied boarding or “bumped.” They said he would get a $500 coupon and have to fly the next day. He told the gate agent that the airline needed to give him $1,350 in cash and showed the agent the regulation he had pulled up in his cell phone. The gate agent went aboard the flight and found another volunteer (ostensibly who accepted far less than $1,350 in cash). My friend boarded the flight and got to his destination on time.
Some flyers have made volunteering to be bumped from a flight a part of their check-in routine. As soon as they get to the gate, they ask if the flight is overbooked. If the answer is yes, they let the gate personnel know they are willing to volunteer. This places their name near the top of the list for bumping and getting a free ticket or airline scrip to anywhere in the airline’s continental U.S. system. One Sunday after Thanksgiving, I managed three free domestic tickets by successfully volunteering to be bumped from three flights in a row. If passengers have time, it means free transportation for them and makes life more pleasant for the airline personnel.
Involuntary bumping — you want to be on the flight, you are not interested in bargaining, and the airline has no room for you.
Sometimes it doesn’t even work to dangle escalating compensation for voluntary bumpees before a packed plane. If there aren’t enough volunteers, some passengers will be left behind, bumped from a flight involuntarily. This is where the regulation comes into play.
DOT requires each airline to give all passengers who are bumped involuntarily a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn’t.
Travelers who don’t get to fly are entitled to denied boarding compensation in the form of a check or cash.
The amount depends on the price of their ticket and the length of the delay.
If passengers are bumped involuntarily and the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to get them to their final destination (including a later connection) within one hour of their original scheduled arrival time, there is no compensation.
If the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after your original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay passengers an amount equal to 200 percent of their one-way fare to their final destination that day, with a $675 maximum.
If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get passengers to their 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 (400 percent of your one-way fare, $1350 maximum).
If a ticket does not show a fare (for example, a frequent-flyer award ticket or a ticket issued by a consolidator), the denied boarding compensation is based on the lowest cash, check or credit card payment charged for a ticket in the same class of service (e.g., coach, first class) on that flight.
Passengers always get to keep their original ticket and use it on the next flight arranged by the airline. Or, they can get their money back and cancel the trip. The denied boarding compensation is essentially a payment for their inconvenience.
If a passenger paid for optional services on their original flight (e.g., seat selection, checked baggage) and did not receive those services on a substitute flight or were required to pay a second time, the airline that denied boarding must refund those payments when passengers are involuntarily bumped from a flight.
Knowing your rights is your best insurance when faced with travails at the airport.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 12 years with Congress, the Department of Transportation, and industry stakeholders on travel issues. He was the first consumer representative to the Advisory Committee for Aviation Consumer Protections appointed by the Secretary of Transportation from 2012 through 2018.