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This chapter is from the book

This chapter is from the book

Overbooking and Getting Bumped

Airlines routinely overbook their flights—that is, they sell more seats than are actually available. They do this because people typically do not cancel their reservations when they change their travel plans; if the airlines didn't overbook, they'd have a lot of empty (and unpaid) seats on all their flights.

Fortunately, it all works out—most of the time. The airline overbooks a percentage of the available seats, and a similar percentage of passengers are no-shows. More often than not, everybody who shows up gets a seat.

In those rare instances where the flight actually has more real passengers than seats, the airline will ask for volunteers who are willing to give up their seats in exchange for compensation—typically a coupon for free travel and a seat on a later flight. This practice is known as voluntary denied boarding. If there are not enough volunteers, airlines will deny boarding to selected passengers. This practice is known as involuntary denied boarding and is likely to make you irate if you're one of the involunteers. Overall, less than 1% of passengers are denied boarding, either voluntarily or involuntarily.

If you are considering giving up your seat on an overbooked flight, keep these points in mind:

  • If there aren't enough volunteers, you can try to negotiate for a better deal.

  • Before you give up your original seat, ask for a confirmed seat on the next flight.

  • Ask about any restrictions on your free ticket.

  • Ask what the airline will do for you while you wait for the next flight—you can sometimes get the carrier to pay for a meal or hotel room.

In 2002, fewer than 1 in 10,000 passengers were involuntarily denied boarding. These unlucky souls were typically chosen because they were the last to check in or didn't have a seat assignment. In this situation, airlines will also give preference to frequent flyers and passengers flying under a higher fare class.

Know, however, that each airline has its own policy. For example, American Airlines states: "We will usually deny boarding based upon check-in time, but we may also consider factors such as severe hardships, fare paid, and status within the AAdvantage program." Southwest Airlines states: "Carrier shall deny boarding in reverse order from the order in which passengers checked in at the gate, with no preference given to any particular person or category of passenger."

If you get bumped you are entitled to an on-the-spot payment of denied boarding compensation. The amount depends on the price of your ticket and the length of the delay, as follows:

  • If the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination 1 to 2 hours after your original arrival time (1 to 4 hours on international flights), the airline must pay you an amount equal to your one-way fare to your final destination, with a $200 maximum.

  • If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than 2 hours later (4 hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles to 200% of your fare, $400 maximum.

  • You always get to keep your original ticket and use it on another flight. If you choose to make your own arrangements (on another airline, let's say), you can request an "involuntary refund" for the ticket for the flight you were bumped from. The denied boarding compensation is essentially a payment for your inconvenience.

Conditions and exceptions to the preceding are as follows:

  • To be eligible for compensation, you must have a confirmed reservation.

  • You must meet the airline's deadline for buying your ticket and check-in deadline. (See page 34.)

  • No compensation is due if the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination within 1 hour of your originally scheduled arrival time.

  • If the airline must substitute a smaller plane for the one it originally planned to use, the carrier isn't required to pay people who are bumped as a result.

  • The rules do not apply to charter flights, or to scheduled flights operated with planes that hold 60 or fewer passengers.

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