Denied boarding compensation can be $1,550 in cash, or it may be $10,000
In April of 2017 police dragged a bloodied Dr. Dao off the United Airlines flight from Chicago to Louisville. He had teeth missing. Many Americans questioned the rules for involuntarily denied boarding or bumping compensation.
Today, as we leave the pandemic, some airlines are filling planes and have increased their overbooking rates. That translates to more denied boardings. Learn these denied boarding lessons. Be ready when an airline announces you made a reservation on an over-booked flight.
Senators and Representatives who make the laws wondered about the DOT rules as Dr. Dao was dragged off the plane. Plus, the airport police were perplexed. But, airlines and consumer advocates knew precisely what the rules were. And, they knew that United Airlines had not followed their own denied boarding compensation rules.
United Airlines broke their own rules and DOT rules
United Airlines knew they broke denied boarding rules. Of course, the beating of the passenger was done by the Chicago Airport Police, not United Airlines, so that factored into the DOT whitewashing of this sickening affair. But, if United Airlines had followed its own denied boarding rules and the DOT rules, this incident would never have come to pass.
New airline compensation can go to $10,000 in order to get a voluntary bumping status from passengers.
Almost immediately, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines announced new passenger compensation. Each airline pledged up to $10,000 to get passengers to leave the flight voluntarily. Plus, the compensation may be doled out in airline scrip only good on full moons when it is raining in Death Valley. (Sarcasm intended; check the scrip/voucher carefully. Few allow passengers who receive the denied boarding scrip to use the voucher for any flight if the voucher is for a free flight. However, when a specific amount of money is involved, it can be used for most airline purchases). Southwest Airlines, perhaps the best-run airline from the passenger’s point of view, announced that it would not overbook flights.
The government did nothing to punish United Airlines or change the rules for denied boarding
After a flurry of Travelers United meetings with staffers on The Hill, the Senate Commerce Committee did nothing. Then, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee also did nothing. Both held showy hearings. However, neither the Senate nor the House did anything positive in terms of overbooking and denied boarding.
Almost five years later, nothing has changed except that passengers already boarded cannot be pulled off the plane if there is an oversold condition. And, even that has now been delayed by the Biden administration. Passengers still wait.
Here is a recap of the DOT denied boarding rules as they stand today.
Note the exceptions to these rules: Passengers must meet the required check-in times; no compensation is needed, and passengers should check the airline’s “boarding priority” (the rules that specify which passenger gets bumped first in case there are not enough voluntary bumpees). Plus, if a passenger is bumped “involuntarily,” they can receive compensation in cash, not airline scrip or vouchers. However, now airlines may provide compensation with credit card credits.
When a passenger volunteers to be bumped, compensation is determined by the airline and the passenger — it is a bargaining situation. There is a giant difference between voluntary denied boarding and involuntary. One passenger ended up with $10,000! Make sure you know the rules before negotiating with the gate agents.
Voluntarily giving up your seat
If a flight has more passengers who are ready to fly than there are seats available, airlines must first ask passengers to give up their seats voluntarily, in exchange for compensation, before bumping anyone involuntarily. Airlines may offer passengers incentives, such as money or vouchers, to volunteer. 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.
- 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.
More considerations before accepting denied boarding compensation.
If you make an agreement with an airline in exchange for compensation and a later flight, you should get answers to these important questions:
- When is the next flight on which the airline can confirm your seat? The alternate flight may be just as acceptable to you. On the other hand, if the airline offers to put you on standby on another flight that’s full, you could be stuck at your departure airport for a long time.
- Will the airline provide other amenities such as free meals, a hotel room, transfers between the hotel and the airport, and a phone card? If not, you might have to spend the money it offers you on food or lodging while you wait for the next flight.
- How long is the ticket or voucher good for?
- Is the ticket or voucher unusable during holiday periods when you might want to use it?
- Can it be used for international flights?
Involuntarily giving up your seat (bumping)
Sometimes, when an airline asks for volunteers to give up their seats and fly on a different flight, there are not enough volunteers. When this occurs, the airline will select passengers to give up their seats. This is called “involuntary denied boarding” or “bumping.”
How does an airline determine who has to give up their seat?
- It is legal for airlines to involuntarily bump passengers from an oversold flight when there are not enough volunteers. The airline’s responsibility is to determine its own fair boarding priorities.
- If there are not enough passengers who are willing to give up their seats voluntarily, an airline may deny seats on an aircraft based on criteria that it establishes. Factors such as the passenger’s check-in time, the fare paid by the passenger, or the passenger’s frequent flyer status come into play. However, the criteria cannot subject a passenger to any unjust or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage. For example, an airline could not lawfully use a passenger’s race or ethnicity as a criterion.
Do airlines have to tell me my rights when I’m involuntarily bumped?
- Yes. DOT requires airlines to give all passengers who are bumped involuntarily a written statement. It must describe the passenger rights and explain how the carrier decides who gets bumped.
Are airlines required to pay me money when I’m involuntarily bumped?
- It depends. An airline is required to compensate you after involuntarily bumping you from an oversold flight in certain situations. However, there are many situations where you are not entitled to compensation.
Bumped passengers are NOT eligible for compensation in the following situations:
- Aircraft Change – A smaller plane is substituted for the larger one the airline originally planned on using due to operational or safety reasons.
- Weight and Balance – Weight or balance restrictions that apply to planes with 60 or fewer seats for operational or safety reasons.
- Downgrading – A passenger is downgraded from a higher class of seating to a lower class. In this case, the passenger is entitled to a refund for the difference in price.
- Charter Flights – A flight contracted for a specific trip that is not part of an airline’s regular schedule.
- Small Aircraft – Scheduled flights on planes holding fewer than 30 passengers.
- Flights Departing a Foreign Location – International flights to the United States. However, some airlines on these routes may provide compensation voluntarily. Also, the European Commission has a rule on bumping passengers from flights that apply to passengers departing from a European Union member state; ask the airline for details, or visit this page.
Situations when bumped passengers ARE eligible for compensation:
- If passengers are not bumped from a flight for one of the reasons above, they qualify for involuntary denied boarding compensation if an airline requires you to give up your seat on an oversold flight and:
- They have a confirmed reservation,
- Traveler checked in to their flight on time,
- Passenger arrived at the departure gate on time, and
- The airline cannot get passenger to their destination within one hour of the flight’s original arrival time.
If I am entitled to compensation, how is the amount of compensation calculated?
- Passengers denied boarding involuntarily due to oversales are entitled to compensation set by DOT. It is based on the price of the ticket and the length of time that the passengers are delayed in getting to their destination because of being denied boarding. Plus, whether their flight is a domestic flight or an international flight leaving from the United States makes a difference. This is called “denied boarding compensation,” or “DBC” for short.
- Most bumped passengers who experience short delays on flights will receive compensation. Compensation for short delays is doubled from the previous period to $775 and increases based on the change in the cost-of-living index every two years. Passengers experiencing longer delays on flights will receive payments of four times the one-way value of the flight they were bumped from, up to $1,550. Please see the tables below.
Domestic – Denied Boarding Compensation (DBC)
Domestic – Denied Boarding Compensation (DBC) Length of Delay Compensation 0 to 1 hour arrival delay No compensation 1 to 2 hour arrival delay 200% of one-way fare (but no more than $775) Over 2 hour arrival delay 400% of one-way fare (but no more than $1,550)
International – Denied Boarding Compensation (DBC)
International – Denied Boarding Compensation (DBC) Length of Delay Compensation 0 to 1 hour arrival delay No compensation 1 to 4 hour arrival delay 200% of one-way fare (but no more than $775) Over 4 hour arrival delay 400% of one-way fare (but no more than $1,550)
When will I receive compensation if I am eligible to receive it?
- Following a bumping incident, airlines must offer passengers compensation at the airport on the same day.
- If the airline provides substitute transportation that leaves the airport before the airline can pay the passenger, the airline must pay the passenger within 24 hours of the bumping incident.
Is there is a limit on how much money airlines are allowed to give me when I am involuntarily bumped?
- No. Although airlines are required to give you a certain amount of money by law, airlines may give more money than is required.
An airline can refuse to transport a passenger for the reasons listed in its contract of carriage, a legal agreement between the passenger and airline, so long as the refusal is not discriminatory, such as:
- Being intoxicated or under the influence of illegal drugs.
- Attempting to interfere with the duties of a flight crew member.
- Disrupting flight operations or engaging in unruly behavior.
- Having 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 crewmember’s duties aboard an aircraft being operated.”
To read the federal regulation implementing involuntary denied boarding rules, click here.
Charlie Leocha is the President of Travelers United. He has been working in Washington, DC, for the past 14 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.