Today’s tip is building off of yesterday’s tip, which was about how not to get dragged off a United Airlines plane. BTW: In no way was I defending United Airlines, Republic Airways or the Chicago Aviation Police. They completely messed up; force should have never been used. And the gate agents should have offered passengers a lot more money than $800 to spend 18 hours in an airport hotel. If they had offered $1,300, I bet this never would have happened.

The point of that tip was to try to prevent this from ever happening again. And I doubt it will thanks to cell phone cameras and the PR nightmare and money it has cost United.

The one positive thing to come out of this whole fiasco is that it’s shedding a light on what passengers are entitled to when an airline overbooks and involuntarily bumps them.

Carriers each have their own set of rules called a “Contract of Carriage” that no one reads because it’s tens of thousands of words long and drafted in legalese to make it as complicated as possible to understand. But all airlines have to follow the Department of Transportation rules that if they involuntarily bump a passenger, like United did on Sunday night, and the passenger doesn’t get to their final destination within one hour, then they must pay up.

Good to know: According to data from the Department of Transportation, 46,000 travelers were involuntarily bumped from flights in 2015. On the flip side, there were 505,000 voluntarily bumped.

Airlines don’t like to advertise this so it’s important for travelers to know. For example, my sister Carol called me frantically one Christmas morning from the Miami airport, saying that the gate agent wouldn’t let her and her family on the plane to Barbados because they’d oversold it and they couldn’t find any volunteers. Carol (my sister) was told they were involuntarily bumped because they were the last to check in.

I told my sister to chill and to tell the American Airlines agent that it was fine but that they better get them on the evening flight and that Carol’s family was each owed $1,350 cash. According to my sister, the agent was surprised that she knew she was owed hefty compensation and didn’t want her to speak too loudly so others could hear. A few minutes later, the agent booked them on the next flight and handed them each checks for $1,350. Carol and her kids were no longer upset they were missing a day in the sun.

According to the DOT, the amount of money owed to passengers involuntarily bumped is:

“DOT requires each airline to give 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 who don’t get to fly are frequently entitled to denied boarding compensation in the form of a check or cash. The amount depends on the price of their ticket and the length of the delay:

  • 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 one hour of your original scheduled arrival time, there is no compensation.
  • If the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after your original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay you an amount equal to 200% of your one-way fare to your final destination that day, with a $675 maximum.
  • If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles (400% of your one-way fare, $1350 maximum).
  • If your ticket does not show a fare (for example, a frequent-flyer award ticket or a ticket issued by a consolidator), your denied boarding compensation is based on the lowest cash, check or credit card payment charged for a ticket in the same class of service (e.g., coach, first class) on that flight.
  • You always get to keep your original ticket and use it on another flight. If you choose to make your own arrangements, you can request an “involuntary refund” for the ticket for the flight you were bumped from. The denied boarding compensation is essentially a payment for your inconvenience.
  • If you paid for optional services on your original flight (e.g., seat selection, checked baggage) and you did not receive those services on your substitute flight or were required to pay a second time, the airline that bumped you must refund those payments to you.

Like all rules, however, there are a few conditions and exceptions:

  • To be eligible for compensation, you must have a confirmed reservation. A written confirmation issued by the airline or an authorized agent or reservation service qualifies you in this regard even if the airline can’t find your reservation in the computer, as long as you didn’t cancel your reservation or miss a reconfirmation deadline.
  • Each airline has a check-in deadline, which is the amount of time before scheduled departure that you must present yourself to the airline at the airport. For domestic flights most carriers require you to be at the departure gate between 10 minutes and 30 minutes before scheduled departure, but some deadlines can be an hour or longer. Check-in deadlines on international flights can be as much as three hours before scheduled departure time. Some airlines may simply require you to be at the ticket/baggage counter by this time; most, however, require that you get all the way to the boarding area. Some may have deadlines at both locations. If you miss the check-in deadline, you may have lost your reservation and your right to compensation if the flight is oversold.”

Imagine if the airlines didn’t have to follow these rules. Passengers would be totally screwed. I hope this incident makes the government go one step further and require airlines to keep sweetening the pot until they can find volunteers willing to give up their seats so they no longer can involuntarily bump people. I bet United execs wish the gate agents had offered passengers $100,000 to give up their seats.

Tomorrow’s tip will be about how to get bumped since I know a lot of travelers (including myself) who actually try to get bumped to make extra money.



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10 Comments On "What Passengers Are Entitled to When an Airline Overbooks"
  1. Felix|

    Bumping was not the case here. Did you read Rule 21 of United’s Contract of Carriage. Refusal of Transport is what this passenger suffered. What is the remedy for that?

    Remember, the plane was already loaded and the passenger in his seat. United has very specific rules to remove a passenger at that point and none applied in this case.

  2. Cynthia Wood|

    What is your source documents?
    Can you please provide a link to the DOT guidelines?
    Any guidance on how and where to file a claim if your rights have been violated?

    1. Johnny Jet|

      Click the words “According to data from the Department of Transportation” in the post to find the source.

  3. Ross Dunn|

    Hi Johnny,

    Do you any recommendations for inexpensive flight to Dominican Republic, Cancun, Panama,
    Central America, Caribbean, areas? I prefer non stop or better yet maybe a stop at a location for a day or 2 then to my destination. Best time of the year etc. my times are flexible.
    Thanks – Ross

  4. Niall d'Christopher|

    Do you know the rules in Europe, Asia and Australia? Most of my travel is international.

  5. David MySky|

    Can they still bump you even if your checked luggage is on the jet, your overhead luggage is stowed, and you’re already seated and buckled in?

  6. Yvonne|

    A few weeks ago I voluntarily bumped on an AA flight from San Diego to Greenville South Carolina and I received a $500 voucher plus a flight two hours later. My question is, since they announced that they would pay $500 for people volunteering their seats, what if I paid for first class? Would they offer me more when I volunteer if I tell them it’s a first class ticket? If so, I would prefer that so that I’d get a refund plus another first class seat. Hopefully it works that way.

    I am taking another flight out of Charlotte North Carolina to San Diego in October and plan on scheduling my flight several hours earlier than desired, hoping to be bumped again. Testing the waters. I hope it works.

    Thank you !

    1. Johnny Jet|

      It all depends. But they usually don’t offer more for first class but you can request to get rebooked back in the cabin you paid for.

  7. Yvonne|

    How would you know that the boarding agent is offering the deal if you’re sitting in the plane? They make the announcement at the gate. I don’t know that you’d hear it when already seated, but maybe.

    1. Johnny Jet|

      Sometimes the gate agent will get on the plane and make an announcement when they need more volunteers.

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