You arrive at the airport, pass through security and head to your gate, only to find that your plane is overbooked. Someone -- or several someones -- won't make it onto your flight. Could that someone be you?
An overbooked plane can be a mixed blessing. If you're the type of traveler who loves to reap the rewards of forfeiting your seat, an overbooked plane means a chance to rack up meal coupons and flight vouchers. If not, you could find yourself involuntarily scrambling for an alternate route to London.
Whatever your goal -- to be bumped or not to be bumped -- we've got a strategy for you.
What Is Bumping?
To be bumped from a flight is to be denied a seat on a plane when you have a confirmed reservation. It results from overbooking, an airline practice designed to fill the empty seats that no-show passengers leave behind. The more popular a route, the more likely the flight is to be oversold. Keep in mind that passengers ticketed on flights canceled due to bad weather are not eligible for bumping benefits. The Department of Transportation requires commercial airlines flying 30 passengers or more and originating in the United States to seek out volunteers before bumping anyone.
Such volunteers can receive lucrative rewards, from cash to free air vouchers. In general, the longer the delay, the better the pay-off, and if the airline cannot secure enough volunteers to forfeit their seats the first time around, the pay-off will generally increase as the flight nears take-off time and the airline grows more desperate to empty seats. Some airlines will even offer meals, free drink coupons, free headsets on the next flight, an upgrade to first class or admission into the swanky airline clubs.
The Department of Transportation closely monitors bumping and issues frequent reports helpful for travelers serious about getting or not getting bumped from a flight. You can find its reports at Transportation.gov/airconsumer.
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 rude or 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.
How to Avoid Being Bumped from a Flight
If you have obligations in your destination city and absolutely cannot afford to be bumped from a flight, arrive as early as possible at the airport, especially if you're taking a popular route. Better yet, check in online before you even leave for the airport. The last passengers to check in for the flight are typically the ones who find themselves bumped involuntarily. If you're at the gate before the majority of the passengers have checked in, your chances of retaining your original reservation are favorable.
U.S. Department of Transportation statistics show that on average, only about one of every 10,000 airline passengers is bumped involuntarily. This number often increases over the holidays and other busy travel seasons, but the volunteer system does in fact work very well, and it is unlikely you will be denied boarding on your next trip.
What the Law Says About Overbooking
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 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 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.