How to Handle an Airline Overbooking

Apr 26, 2017

Business people walk through an airport in front of a window with an airplane outside


If you caught the video from April 9th of a man being forcibly dragged from a United Express plane bound for Louisville, you may be left with a number of questions about your rights when an airline overbooks. Although the Department of Transportation is investigating United Airlines regarding their compliance with federal regulations in this case, it can be disconcerting to learn that an airline may deny boarding to you when they oversell tickets, and even require that you disembark from an overbooked flight. Here are the facts about overbooking that you need to know in order to protect yourself as a consumer, and make the most of the situation, if an airline seeks to “re-accommodate” you:

Airlines are within their legal rights to bump passengers. Because of the probability that there will be a significant number of no-shows on a particular flight, airlines are permitted to sell more tickets for flights than there are available seats on a plane. Many airlines defend overbooking as a business practice because it allows them to keep fares down by optimizing their volume of ticket sales. If more people show up for a flight than expected, the airline is permitted to bump passengers to an alternative flight; however, the airline must first ask for volunteers who are willing to give up their seats.

You may be able to negotiate compensation: When it becomes clear to an airline that a flight has been oversold, they will typically offer travel vouchers to those who will agree to take a different flight. At this point, compensation can vary, so it may make sense to negotiate, especially if too few people come forward. As an example, you might ask for a free upgrade in addition to a voucher. In the event that an airline doesn’t receive enough volunteers, employees can then begin selecting passengers to be involuntarily removed from the flight. If you are forced to give up your seat, federal regulations entitle you to 400 percent of your one-way fare up to $1,350 in cash if you’re delayed to your destination by two hours or more for a domestic flight, or 200 percent of your one-way fare up to $675 in cash if your delay on a domestic flight is less than two hours but more than one. For more details on your rights to compensation for an involuntary bump, see http://bit.ly/YourCompensationforInvoluntaryBumps.

Who gets bumped: Airlines are supposed to make decisions regarding which passengers are bumped on a compulsory basis according to pre-determined criteria that the airline has set itself.  These may include factors such as ticket class, itinerary, check-in time and how often the passenger flies with the carrier. In general, those who have booked a fare class above economy (e.g. business or first) are less likely to be bumped. An airline may also refuse to allow passengers to fly for reasons such as poor hygiene (i.e., bad odor), appearing intoxicated or not being “properly clothed” according to the airline’s Contract of Carriage (see http://bit.ly/TwoGirlsBarredFromUnitedFlight). In addition to an oversold flight, an airline may bump passengers if a plane is overweight, in order to make room for employees en route to work on another flight or to accommodate an air marshal (source: AP).

Certain airlines are known to oversell flights: Last year, approximately 475,000 passengers lost their seats because airlines sold more tickets than there were seats. Of this number, about 10 percent were bumped involuntarily. With that said, not all airlines engage in the practice of overselling tickets, and some have learned effective ways to manage no-shows by offering strong incentives to travelers. Among the airlines that have a policy of not overselling are JetBlue and the Irish low-cost airline Ryanair. However, according to Cranky Flier, a 2016 report from the Department of Transportation reveals that JetBlue bumped a total of 3,406 people last year – of which 2,140 were involuntary (the airline claims this is due to its changing fleet). According to the Associated Press, airlines among the least likely to bump a passenger against his or her will last year were Hawaiian, Delta and Virgin America.

Before rearranging travel plans based on concerns about overbooking, keep in mind that it’s become increasingly rare for airlines to bump passengers. Depending on your perspective, this may or may not be good news. At the same time, you must comply if an airline tells you to give up your seat, even if you’ve already boarded the plane. If you find yourself in this situation, don’t argue with the crew, simply get off the plane.  As FlyersRights.org explains, you have up to two years from the date of an incident to take legal action against an airline, although complaints about baggage damage must be made within seven days.

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