What to Do if You’re Bumped From a Flight, According to a Lawyer

Tips to Avoid Being Involuntarily Bumped

1. Fly Airlines That Bump Fewer Passengers

While there is no way to 100% guarantee that you and your family will not be involuntarily bumped, there are steps you can take to reduce the possibility as some airlines bump more passengers than others. For example, from October–December 2018, American Airlines involuntarily bumped 1,573 passengers — and voluntarily bumped another 20,168. Of course, that’s a very small percentage of the more than 33 million passengers they flew during that time, but it’s still over 1,500 people impacted. During that same timeframe, Delta flew roughly 1 million more passengers than American and had exactly zero involuntary bumps. Delta had 22,160 voluntary bumps in those three months — demonstrating they likely just sweetened the deals until they had enough voluntary takers.

2. Check In for Your Flight Online in Advance

Checking in for your flight 24 hours in advance online will give you a leg up on avoiding an involuntary bump. Don’t wait until you get to the airport to check in. Typically, those who are bumped are the ones who check in last, even if they had seat assignments tied to their reservation. Set up a reminder on your phone to check in 24 hours in advance.

3. Do Not Purchase a Basic Economy Fare

Purchasing the least expensive fare, known as basic economy, means you are not able to select seats in advance. The airline will assign you a seat before boarding and if the aircraft happens to be overbooked, the system may not be able to find you a seat at that time. Having a designated seat is important to ensure you get on the flight — though it isn’t a fail proof strategy.

4. Have Status

Again, no guarantees, but elite status will hopefully spare you an involuntary bump.

5. Fly First or Business Class

American Airlines’ Contract of Carriage states that those flying on paid business and first class fares have higher priority in not being bumped than those in economy.

6. Connect Your Reservation With Other Family Members

If you are flying with other family members (or even a group of friends), make sure to link your reservations in advance if you did not book together by calling the airline. This is especially important if another passenger you are flying with has status. Typically the airline will not split up groups if they can avoid it.

Unaccompanied minors, passengers with physical limitations and other similar situations are also given a higher priority when deciding who gets bumped and who doesn’t.

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The procedure

DOT rules require airlines to search out people willing to relinquish their seats for compensation before bumping people involuntarily. If you’re not pressed for time, you might volunteer to await the next flight in exchange for a free ticket or money. Once the supply of volunteers has been exhausted, the airline begins to bump passengers according to its own set of boarding priorities.

Voluntarily Giving Up Your Seat

When 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. 

If you decide to give your seat back to the airline in exchange for compensation and a later flight, you may want to 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?

Get cash for the little extras

You should also get a refund for any optional services (think seat selection or checked baggage) you paid extra for on your original flight, providing you either didn’t receive those services, or had to pay again on the substitute flight.

How to prepare in case an airline needs to bump passengers

When airlines need to bump passengers, they start with voluntary bumping. This means they announce that they need volunteers who are willing to take a later flight and offer compensation to those who accept. Compensation is usually a voucher for a certain amount with the airline, but could also include a hotel stay and meal vouchers if you’ll need to take a flight the next day instead.

Some passengers like having the opportunity to get a voucher in exchange for being bumped. Here’s what you (and anyone you’re traveling with) should discuss ahead of time to be prepared for this situation:

  • Would you be willing to accept a voluntary bumping? Flexible travelers may have no problem doing so. But if you have limited vacation time or you also need to make a connecting flight, then it probably isn’t a good idea.
  • How much compensation would you need? Airlines may raise the amount of compensation if they don’t get enough volunteers at first, so you should have a number in mind for what you’ll accept.

By figuring this out before you go to the airport, you won’t miss out on compensation because the airline successfully recruited enough volunteers while you were busy thinking it over.

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Voluntarily vs Involuntarily Giving Up Your Seat

In the event of an overbooked flight, airlines must first ask passengers to give up their seats voluntarily, in exchange for compensation, before bumping anyone involuntarily. Airlines may offer passengers incentives – including money, hotel accommodations, or vouchers – to volunteer. Passengers are free to negotiate with the airline over the compensation as there is no limit to the amount they may offer.

However, there are many situations where bumped passengers are not entitled to any compensation. These situations include aircraft change, weight and balance restrictions, class downgrade (travelers are refunded for the difference in price), charter flights, small aircrafts (30 or less passengers), or flights departing from a foreign location.

If passengers are not bumped from a flight for one of the reasons listed above, they may qualify for involuntary denied boarding compensation. This applies if an airline requires a passenger to give up their seat on an oversold flight and they have a confirmed reservation, checked-in to the flight on time, arrived at the departure gate on time, and the airline cannot get the traveler to the destination within one hour of the flight’s original scheduled arrival time.

Denied boarding compensation” (“DBC”) is calculated based on the price paid for the ticket, the length of time the traveler is delayed in getting to their destination, and whether the flight is domestic or international. If the flight change makes the passenger 1-2 hours late, they are entitled to 2X the ticket price paid for a maximum of $675. If the flight change makes them 2+ hours late, they can get 4X the ticket price for a maximum of $1,350. Again, if the change makes the traveler less than an hour late, they are not entitled to any compensation.

How to Get Bumped from a Flight

Get to the gate early. Airline rules typically state that if you don’t arrive at least 15 – 30 minutes before the scheduled departure, you will forfeit your reservation and have to fend for yourself. In most of these cases, airlines are not required to compensate you for the missed flight.

Don’t hassle the gate attendants. Arrive early and let them know you’re a willing volunteer, then simply remain near the gate where they can contact you if needed. Asking about the status of the flight every five minutes or becoming impolite will not make the attendants very anxious to hand you cash or free flight vouchers.

Before you volunteer, make sure the pay-off is worth it. Is it possible to get cash rather then a flight voucher? If not, does the flight voucher have a long enough life to make it useful for your travel needs? Does it apply to all airfares, even the lowest, most restrictive fares? Are there blackout dates? Is the alternate flight you are booked on acceptable or are you on standby for another oversold flight? In addition, don’t be afraid to ask for extras — meal vouchers, free admission to the airport club, a seat upgrade. The worst the airline can say is no.

Involuntary Bumping

But bumping also happens involuntarily. That's when the airline denies you boarding, even if you have a confirmed seat. This also only happens in oversold situations, but it happens when no passenger volunteers to give up their seat. In the case that this happens to you, it's smart to demand cash instead of a flight credit because vouchers often come with a catch, such as blackout dates, economy seat selection only, etc. For more information on specific practices, ask the airline you're flying on for their rules and compensation policies for bumping.

2) Ask to be put on the list

Mentioning your willingness to be bumped at checkin might not help, as it’s the gate agents who make this decision. After all, they don’t even know how many people are checked in until boarding time.

Still, persistence doesn’t hurt. At checkin, you could tell them you’re flexible and ask to be put on the list.

4) Check with the gate agents

Again, the gate agents know. Maybe they don’t know yet, but they are starting to get a feel. Ask about the flight, or let them know you’re flexible and don’t have checked bags. They may say the flight is empty, or they may take your name.

Overbooked Flight Compensation

The Department of Transportation has specific rules governing overbooking procedures. Paraphrased from the DOT’s Consumer Guide to Air Travel:

The airline must give you a written statement that describes your rights and explains how it decides who does and doesn’t make it onto an oversold flight. If the airline arranges an alternative flight that gets you to your final destination within an hour of your original scheduled arrival time, you won’t be compensated.

If the substitute plane will get you where you’re going one to two hours late on U.S. domestic flights or one to four hours internationally, the airline must pay you double the cost of your one-way fare, up to $675. If you’re delayed more than two hours domestically or more than four internationally, or if the airline doesn’t make substitute arrangements, the overbooked flight compensation doubles, with a $1,350 ceiling. You can demand payment on the spot, and if you feel entitled to more, you can try negotiating with the complaint department. (See our tips for making an effective travel complaint.)

Before you count your rewards, however, be aware that you must have a confirmed reservation. A written confirmation from an airline, authorized agent or reservation service will suffice, even if the airline can’t find your reservation in the computer.

If you paid in advance for optional services such as checked bags or premium seats, the airline must refund you for these if you do not receive them on your alternate flight.

These federal bumping rules do not apply to charters, planes with fewer than 30 seats, or smaller aircraft that are substituted for originally scheduled ones. (On flights carrying 30 to 60 passengers, you will not be compensated if you are bumped for safety reasons such as weight or balance constraints.) Federal bumping rules don’t apply to inbound flights to the United States or to flights between cities outside the U.S., but various airlines or foreign countries may have rules of their own. For example, here are rules for the European Union.

Have you ever been bumped from an overbooked flight?

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