When you fly, it’s not uncommon to hear gate agents seeking volunteers to give up their seats because a flight has been oversold.
It is legal to oversell an airplane, meaning the airline has more passengers than it has seats, but there are rules about it.
If an airline does oversell, it must make its best effort to find volunteers to give up seats before involuntarily bumping passengers, and the airlines are required to compensate passengers who are involuntarily bumped.
Delta Air Lines was recently fined $750,000 for not following the rules when bumping passengers from flights. In some cases, Delta did not seek volunteers and in others it did not inform passengers that they had a right to cash compensation when they were involuntarily bumped.
With the current rules on involuntary bumping, the compensation is based on the price for that one-way portion of the trip.
If passengers arrive at the final destination within one hour of the originally scheduled time, there is no compensation.
On domestic flights, the compensation is double the one-way ticket price if you get to your destination between one and two hours of your original arrival time, up to a maximum of $650, and quadruple your one-way ticket price, up to $1,300, if the airline can’t get you there within two hours of the original arrival time.
On international flights, you will receive double the one-way ticket amount if you arrive within one to four hours and quadruple if the arrival is more than four hours from your original arrival time.
Above all, involuntarily bumped passengers are entitled to cash or check compensation if that’s what they’d rather have. The airline can offer you a voucher for future travel, but it must disclose all restrictions, and you can still insist on cash or check.
One thing to note is that the rules apply to outbound international flights, but not inbound. For rules on flights within Europe, visit ec.europa.eu/transport/passengers/air/air_en.htm.
When you get bumped, the airline is essentially buying back your seat assignment, so it’s really important that you have one. If you have a seat assignment, you can also volunteer to be bumped if you like what the airline is offering.
To be compensated, you need to follow the airlines’ rules on check-in and when you need to be at the gate. For example, on American, you need to check in at least 30 minutes before your scheduled flight time on most domestic flights and you need to be at the gate at least 15 minutes in advance, or you can lose your seat without compensation.
While compensation for involuntary bumping is stated by law, voluntary is still up to the airlines.
If you are going to volunteer, you want to know the compensation, but more important, what flight the airline will “protect” you on. In other words, you want a confirmed seat on another flight, and you want to know when you will be taking off.
If the airline tells you it will give you priority standby on the 2 o’clock flight, that’s just a fancy way of saying that flight is oversold, too.
If you elect to volunteer, and 90 percent of those bumped are volunteers, it’s in the airlines’ best interest to up the ante and give you a voucher even if it’s more money because it’s for an empty seat in the future. The voucher costs them nothing but an empty seat.
For more information on overbooking, visit airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/publications/fly rights.htm#overbooking.