United Airlines landed in some hot water recently because of the way they handled an overbooking situation on a flight from Chicago to Louisville. In short, four people were required to involuntarily give up their seats after they had boarded. The situation escalated, and one of the four passengers was injured when he was physically removed from the plane because he refused to give up his seat. In light of this, we thought it would be smart to review your rights as a passenger when traveling by air. Denise is an expert at air travel, and she answers your top questions below.
Why can an airline oversell flights? It seems unfair they can deny boarding to someone with a confirmed ticket.
Federal rules allow it. Airlines bank on the fact that 5-15% of passengers booked on any given flight will not show up. Once the plane backs away from the gate, an empty seat is lost revenue. So they oversell a flight slightly, in hopes that the 5-15% no-show average holds. It usually does and in fact, only 1 in 16,000 passengers are involuntarily bumped due to an overbooked flight. Managing the rate of no-shows on any particular route helps keep your fares lower, because it keeps more seats filled.
If nobody volunteers to take another flight in these situations, how do airlines decide who gets the boot?
More than 90% of people bumped from a flight did so voluntarily. When there are no takers though, the process is up to the airlines. An airline’s policy will be stated in the Contract of Carriage delivered with the confirmation of every ticket purchased. That said it is still very vague. Most select on the price you paid for your ticket (fare class), itinerary, frequent flyer status and when you checked in (don’t be last). Almost always, though, children traveling alone and passengers needing assistance will be the last to get bumped.
The recent United Airlines incident is obviously an extreme case, but what rights do I have as a passenger if I am involuntarily denied boarding because of an oversold flight?
If you are bumped from a flight involuntarily, you have legal rights to compensation, as follows:
- If you will arrive 1-2 hours late from your original arrival time for a domestic flight, or 1-4 hours late for an international flight, you’ll be compensated twice the one-way fare, up to $675.
- If you will arrive over 2 hours late (domestic) or over 4 hours late (international), you’ll be compensated four times the one-way fare, up to $1,350.
The airlines may offer you flight vouchers or other perks instead of cash, but they must provide you with cash when requested. This is what I recommend as vouchers have a one year lifespan.
How do these rights compare to other issues, such as delays from plane maintenance or bad weather?
In the U.S., airlines are not required to provide hotel accommodations or meal vouchers due to delays, but many will if the issue falls within the airline’s control. When the delay is due to bad weather or other issues outside their control, you’re typically on your own, which is where your travel insurance policy kicks in. Airlines will typically work hard to get you on another flight, but you can also request a refund of your unused ticket if you’d prefer to make your own arrangements.
Finally, when things do go wrong, what are your top tips for making sure I get the most from the airline?
Knowing your carrier’s contract of carriage is a good place to start, and you can request a copy from the gate agent. Always be polite but firm on what you want, and call the customer service number from the terminal if needed. Also, know that airlines have a lot of flexibility on which flights they put you on, so if you don’t like the first itinerary they give you, ask for other options even if it is another airline! Lastly, you do NOT have any rights when it comes to being on a specific flight. So if you are ever involuntarily chosen to give up your seat, please comply and get off the plane!
We always hope for smooth travel, but sometimes things do go wrong. By knowing your rights as a passenger, you’ll be better prepared to work with the airline, and maximize your benefits.
What other questions do you have related to air travel? Reach out to us at Facebook.com/SVandTP. Also look out for more blog articles in the coming weeks about air travel, including why we avoid booking you on ultra-low cost carriers!