Can an airline bump you from a flight?

July 6, 2017 Zach Garrett

After a week-long business trip, you board a flight around 3:00 pm. As you settle into your seat and prepare for the flight a representative from the airline comes up to you and politely breaks the news that you’ve been selected to be bumped from the plane. You  argue briefly, but without making a huge scene you secure your items and exit the plane.

Why were you the one chosen to de-board the plane?  What should you do next?

Airlines consistently overbook flights. They do not do this to bump people off of flights, but to ensure that all seats on the flight are purchased and filled. Airlines overbook flights because some passengers cancel their flight last minute, do not show up for their flight, miss their connection or show up too late to the airport. Additionally, people can be bumped from flights because of weight restrictions due to weather and cargo or if the airline switches from a larger aircraft to a smaller one.

Although it is not rare for airlines to overbook flights, it is rare that a person becomes involuntarily bumped from a flight. U.S. Department of Transportation statistics show that fewer than one out of 10,000 people are bumped from flights involuntarily. There is a difference between voluntary and involuntary bumping from a flight. Both options have their perks and disadvantages. Typically, prior to someone being involuntarily bumped from a flight, flight attendants will request for someone to voluntarily give up their seat. If no one volunteers they will proceed to involuntary bumping.

What to do when you've been involuntarily bumped from a flight:

You can be involuntarily bumped from a flight. This occurs when no one voluntarily gives up their seat on the plane. Contrary to the example in the beginning, airlines will rarely bump you from a plane once you have already boarded. Most airlines would bump you prior to the boarding process. However, once bumped the airline must give a written document to you, the involuntarily bumped passenger, regarding your rights. This document also contains reasons as to why you were bumped and why others were not.

The main reason passengers are bumped from a flight rather than others is based on check-in time and time the passenger arrived at the gate. One way to prevent this from happening is to check in to the flight prior to leaving for the airport, ideally check in the night before. If you do not arrive to the gate 15-30 minutes prior to the flight most airlines forfeit your reservation. You should especially arrive early to flights in busy airports or when flying to popular destinations. The last passengers to check in to a flight are typically the first to be bumped.

According to the Department of Transportation, if you are bumped from a flight you are often entitled to compensation in the form of cash or check. The amount paid to the passenger depends on the length of their delay and the original ticket cost. Here are the guidelines from the Department of Transportation to follow if bumped from a flight involuntarily:

  • “If you are bumped involuntarily and the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to get you to your final destination (including later connections) within one hour of your 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 you an amount equal to 200% of your one-way fare to your final destination that day, with a $675 maximum."
  • "If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your 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% of your one-way fare, $1350 maximum)."
  • "If your ticket does not show a fare (for example, a frequent-flyer award ticket or a ticket issued by a consolidator), your 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."
  • "You always get to keep your original ticket and use it on another flight. If you choose to make your own arrangements, 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."
  • "If you paid for optional services on your original flight (e.g., seat selection, checked baggage) and you did not receive those services on your substitute flight or were required to pay a second time, the airline that bumped you must refund those payments to you.”

Once you cash the check from the airline, you can no longer negotiate or request more money. If you do not think that the amount paid to you is fair, prior to cashing the check, you can take the airline to court and try to make more money. Furthermore, according to the Code of Federal Regulation, “No person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember's duties aboard an aircraft being operated.” Like the example in the beginning if you would have made a scene you could have been charged with a hefty fine.

International flights flying in to the U.S. do not have to abide by these rules, however most do voluntarily. Overall, Europe has similar rules to the United States. Europe calls for volunteers for compensation first. If no one comes they will proceed to bump someone from the flight. They give first priority to those with reduced mobility and any passengers accompanying them. According to Eur-Lex the rules of denied boarding in Europe are as follows:

  • “Reimbursement of the cost of the ticket within seven days or a return flight to the first point of departure or re-routing to their final destination;"
  • "Care (refreshments, meals, hotel accommodation, transport between the airport and place of accommodation, two free telephone calls, telex or fax messages, or e-mails);"
  • "Compensation totaling:
    • €250 for all flights of 1,500 kilometers or less;
    • €400 for all intra-EU flights of more than 1,500 kilometers, and for all other flights between 1,500 and 3,500 kilometers;
    • €600 for all other flights.”

What happens when you volunteer to be bumped from a flight?

On the contrary, if you have the time to be bumped from a flight voluntarily it may pay out generously. The longer you wait before boarding the flight, the more vouchers and or money the airline will most likely give you. The amount not only depends on the urgency of finding a volunteer, but also the length of delay from your future destination. Some questions to consider asking before accepting the airline’s offer:

  • Can I get cash rather than a flight voucher?
  • If not cash, can I get a gift card that can be used on another flight?
  • If I cannot get cash or gift card, are there restrictions or blackouts as to when I can use my voucher?
  • Do I have a guaranteed ticket for my next flight, or am I on standby?

 Additionally, do not be afraid to ask for one or more of the following:

  • Meal vouchers.
  • Seat upgrade to business class, or first class.
  • Admission to the airport club while you wait for your next flight.

Final tips to avoid being bumped:

  • Check-in to flight 24 hours in advance.
  • Establish status with airline by flying same airline or their alliance partner each flight.
  • Reserve seat assignment when flight is booked.
  • Arrive to the gate at least 30-45 minutes prior to the flight.
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