How to Prevent Being Bumped By an Airline

I’ll never forget how shocked and appalled I was when I first learned that any passenger can be bumped, even after boarding the plane and taking his seat. I assumed you were safe once you were all snug and buckled in your seat. And I always thought that first-class passengers were immune to such treatment, but they’re not. A passenger who pays a significant chunk of change for a first-class or business class ticket can be bumped the same as someone in the cheap seats! Recently, a business executive was asked to vacate his first-class seat on a United flight for a “more important passenger.” He was told if he didn’t, he could be cuffed and forcibly removed. That was, of course, before the most recent incident with the forcible removal of a passenger from a United flight and the subsequent endless fallout the airline has endured.

FYI: The domestic airlines least likely to bump you include JetBlue, Virgin America, and Hawaiian Airlines. The airlines that have decent (but not great) records for involuntarily bumping are Southwest and Delta. The airlines with the worst passenger bumping records are SkyWest, ExpressJet, American, and United.

Last year, almost 50,000 passengers were involuntarily bumped. More than a half million air travelers were voluntarily bumped. Voluntarily bumped means you have willingly given up your seat while involuntarily bumped means the airline has forced you to surrender your seat.

Can they really do this?

Sadly, the answer is yes. Every airline has its own set of rules spelled out in a Contract of Carriage. It is a huge document filled with legal jargon, so it is seldom read by passengers. However, the Department of Transportation has a much easier to understand policy. The DOT mandates that each airline provide 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. Those travelers are usually entitled to monetary compensation. The amount depends on the price of their ticket and the length of the delay.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • 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 1 hour of your original scheduled arrival time, there is NO compensation.
  • If the airline arranges alternative transportation that will arrive at your destination 1-2 hours later than your original arrival time on a domestic flight or between 1-4 hours on international flights, the airline must pay you up to $675 maximum.
  • If the alternate flight is scheduled to get you to your destination more than 2 hours later domestically or 4 hours internationally, or if the airline does not make any alternative travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles with a maximum of $1,350.
  • Note: If your ticket does not show a price, compensation is based on the lowest payment charged for a ticket in the same class of service on that same flight. If you paid for optional services on your original flight, such as premium economy or checked baggage, and you did not receive those services on your alternate flight (or were required to pay again), the airline that bumped you must refund that money to you.    

There are a two exceptions:

To be eligible for compensation, you must have a confirmed reservation and you must meet the check-in requirements. Every airline has a window of time passengers must check in before their seat can be given away. For domestic flights, passengers must be at the gate 10-30 minutes prior to departure time. For international flights, check in can be as early as 2-3 hours prior to departure time. The tricky part is that some airlines only require that you have checked in at the baggage and ticket counter by this time, while other airlines require you to have checked in at the baggage and ticket counter and at the boarding gate.

One thing’s for sure. No matter where you fly to or which airline you utilize, knowing all about passenger rights and having a great deal of patience are two things air travelers need these days.

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I believe in gourmet travel on a fast food budget! I share cheap travel tips & TRIP PICKS, free travel reports, and amazing adventure travel resources.