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Airline Bumping - What you Need to Know

In the interest of maximizing the revenues they obtain from their scheduled flight service, airlines may in some cases overbook flights. This is a speculative process that is based on the airlines' best estimate of potential no-shows and cancellations. With many airlines reducing the number of flights they offer, flights are generally departing with less empty seats and the chances of being "bumped" from a flight (also known as denied boarding) have increased. 
To assist consumers, ASTA offers tips for avoiding being bumped as well as important information regarding your rights in the event you are involuntarily bumped from a flight.

Tips for Avoiding Being Bumped

TIP #1  - Get an advance seat assignment. Even if the airline only has a middle seat left to confirm, be sure you take it. Passengers with seat assignments are typically only bumped if they arrive late and their seat assignment is released.

TIP #2  - If you do not have an advance seat assignment, or you want to change your seat assignment, check-in online. Most airlines allow you to check-in online within 24 hours of departure. Seat assignments that were not available at the time of ticketing may be available, including unblocked frequent flyer seats and seat assignments of flyers upgraded to first class. Many airlines automatically upgrade premium flyers within 24-72 hours of departure; at which point their coach seat assignments may be released for pre-assignment.

Tip #3  - Get to the airport early. Some airlines reserve a portion of their seat assignment inventory for airport check-in. Also, make sure your name is placed on the "standby" seat assignment list. While your ticket may say "confirmed", if you do not have a seat assignment, you will be treated by the airline as a "standby" customer.  Seats that are held by no-show passengers or passengers that upgrade at check-in to first class are usually distributed to standby passengers in check-in order.

If you are faced with being bumped, ASTA provides the following tips for travelers faced with being involuntarily bumped and to those who may consider accepting a voucher to take another flight.

Know the lingo
Some confusion regarding compensation centers on the differences between "voluntary" bumping and "involuntary" bumping.

Voluntary bumping occurs when a passenger with a confirmed seat assignment agrees to give up his seat for negotiated compensation. This compensation is not regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT): The airlines give employees guidelines for bargaining with passengers, and they may select those volunteers willing to sell back their reservations for the lowest price. As a result, it is important that consumers ask the right questions (see below) before agreeing to give up their seats in exchange for a free ticket or voucher.

Know what questions to ask
If you volunteer to give up your seat in response to an airline offer of a free ticket, it is important passengers ask about alternate arrangements and restrictions for using compensation. Suggested questions include:

  • "Can you confirm me on a later flight with a seat assignment and what is the schedule?"
  • "Does the voucher or other compensation have an expiration date by when it must be used or redeemed?"
  • "Are there any 'blackout dates', such as holidays, when I can not use the voucher/ticket?"
  • "Can the voucher or other compensation be used for international travel?"
  • "Can I make a reservation using the voucher and how far in advance can I make it?"

Involuntary bumping occurs when an airline prohibits a paid passenger from boarding a flight because it has oversold the flight. The DOT regulates compensation for involuntary bumping.

Know your rights for involuntary bumping

  • 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 $650 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, $1300 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.

The DOT Aviation Consumer Protection Division provides a more detailed explanation of consumer rights in the publication Fly-Rights: A Consumer Guide to Air Travel.

See also
Flying on Bankrupt Airlines

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