What to Do When You’re Involuntarily Bumped from a Flight

When it comes to travel, things often go wrong for me. Whether it’s flights getting entirely canceled, or Colombian soccer teams making planes have to go back to the gate right before takeoff, I’ve seen my fair share of flying fiascos. So when the video surfaced of the United passenger getting dragged off the plane after being involuntarily bumped from the flight (after he was already seated!), I looked at it and thought, “That could be me someday.”

And as a librarian, I’m a firm believer in the importance of having knowledge. The right knowledge. The knowledge you need for the situation at hand.

It turns out there’s this thing called the “US Department of Transportation” that governs how air travel works in this country. (Well, there is as of today. Who knows what will get cut next under the Trump administration?) They have laws that dictate what companies have to do for passengers in a variety of situations, and that includes laws governing people who get bumped when they don’t want to get bumped.

They have a handy web page that goes over your rights as a passenger, and I encourage you all to read it, or at least to be aware that it exists, so you can consult it if you ever are in a travel bind. But since I also know from experience that my blog readers don’t like clicking through to articles, I’m going to summarize the steps to take for involuntary bumping here.

First, airlines are required by law to look for people willing to be bumped in exchange for compensation. What form that compensation takes is up to the airline. They can offer travel vouchers of varying denominations. They might offer hotel rooms and meals as well. There are no laws saying what they have to offer, only that they have to offer something. Often that offer will go up if no one takes them up on it. For the United flight that received all the news coverage, they were supposedly offering $1000 for people willing to be bumped. No one took them up on it.

Be aware that it’s totally in your rights to be fully informed about what exactly the airline is offering if you choose to be bumped. Will there be blackout travel dates for those vouchers? What flight will they put you on instead, and when will you arrive? How long is the voucher good for? Can you use it for international travel? Of course, if someone else chooses to be bumped and doesn’t care about the restrictions, the airline is welcome to deal with them instead of you. It’s a negotiation to find the person or persons willing to be bumped for the best deal for the airline.

But sometimes (as the United case shows) that deal isn’t reached, and the airline has to bump somebody. They overbooked in an effort to make sure the plane was full. (Statistically, it was likely some people would cancel or not show up for the flight, so the airline overbooks to the point where they think that will balance out. Sometimes they’re wrong.) If you are bumped involuntarily, you have some very good rights, but they depend mainly on the delay to your travel:

  • If your new flight gets you to your final destination within an hour of your original schedule, you get nothing. Good day sir.
  • If your new flight gets you there between one and two hours late (one and four hours, for international flights), you’re entitled to 200% of your one way ticket fare, up to a maximum of $675.
  • If your new flight gets you there later than that (or they don’t rebook you at all for some strange reason), you’re entitled to 400% of your one way ticket fare, with a maximum of $1,350.
  • If your ticket didn’t show a fare (you were using frequent flyer miles, for example), they’ll base the one way fare on the lowest price someone paid for travel in the same class you were booked in.
  • You always get to keep your original ticket and use it on another flight. You can also make your own arrangements and request an “involuntary refund” for that ticket. This is above and beyond the compensation listed above.
  • If you paid for any extras on the flight (baggage fees, etc.), the airline is required to refund those payments.

There are some exceptions to these rules that you should be aware of:

  • It assumes you had an actual written reservation on the flight, and that you arrived within the check-in deadline the airline posts. If you got there late, tough luck.
  • If you got bumped because they switched sizes of planes for whatever reason, you’re out of luck. You’re not entitled to anything.
  • If you got bumped due to safety regulations (weight of the plane or balance constraints) and your flight had 30-60 people on it, you’re also out of luck. Go figure.

And here’s one thing to be very aware of: if you’re involuntarily bumped, the airline will likely try to pay you what it owes in the form of ticket vouchers. You are entitled to ask to be paid in a check, instead. Once you cash the check or accept the free flight, you lose the ability to get more money from the airline. You’ve accepted the deal. If being bumped involuntarily ends up costing more than the airline is willing to pay, you can contact their complaints department and ultimately taken them to court. But not if you already accepted the deal.

Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.


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