It’s a nightmare scenario no traveler wants to see play out — you’re waiting at the gate ready to board an overbooked flight when the ground crew reveals there aren’t enough seats. Someone will have to stay behind.
That’s how most overbooked flight situations start, but after this week's headline-grabbing story of the United Airlines passenger violently dragged from his seat after being allowed to board an oversold flight, many travelers are wondering how to avoid getting bumped.
Flights are actually overbooked all the time and Henrik Zillmer, CEO of the passenger-rights group AirHelp, hopes the United Airlines incident will hep shed some light on passenger rights and what travelers are entitled to when airlines overbook flights.
Nearly 600,000 passengers are bumped off flights they bought tickets for every year, he said.
“Overbooking is very common with U.S. airlines and it happens because airlines sell more seats than there actually are on the flight,” Zillmer said. “They do this because they know some people will miss their trip or never show up and airlines want to see every seat taken.”
The worst offenders in terms of bumping passengers? Delta Airlines, followed by United and Southwest, based on 2015 Department of Transportation statistics.
The only airline in the United States that doesn’t overbook flights is JetBlue.
So what do you do if your flight is overbooked?
Whatever you do, don’t volunteer to give up your seat, Zillmer said.
Under DOT regulations, airlines are required to ask for volunteers before they deny boarding to other ticketholders, but Zillmer said the passenger almost always loses out if they volunteer to stay behind.
Airlines always offer compensation to passengers who are “re-accomodated,” as United Airlines puts it, but passengers who voluntarily give up their seats get re-booked on a later flight and get travel vouchers, not cash.
“It’s a very bad deal for passengers because they are entitled to a lot more … I’m talking about cash compensation, booked on next flight and a hotel — this by law is what you’re entitled to,” Zillmer said.
Passengers who are involuntarily denied boarding get a later flight, hotel and cash up to $1,350 per ticket. Because most passengers don’t know their rights, the airlines are making out by offering passengers far less than they’re entitled, Zillmer said.
A family of four made $11,000 off of Delta after dealing with a weekend of flight delays earlier this month.
“Ideally, if you book that flight, you should stick to a reservation and if everyone did that airlines would be appropriately compensating people,” he said.
Organizations like AirHelp provide easy-to-read reference guides for passengers who think their rights are being violated and even help them file the paperwork to get compensated.
What if you just want to go home?
There are a few ways to avoid getting bumped in the first place, though nothing is a guarantee, Zillmer said.
Here are some tips to decrease your chances of being denied boarding on an overbooked flight:
1. Join your airline's frequent flyer program: You’re less likely to get bumped if you're a frequent flyer with the airline you are traveling with, so signing up for frequent flyer programs is one way to decrease your chances of being bumped.
2. Fly off-peak times: You are less likely to be bumped from an overbooked flight as less people are flying early in the morning compared to later in the day.
3. Don't book the cheapest ticket or through outside travel services: In many airline's contract of carriage (including United's), passengers who purchased the lowest fares are most likely to be denied boarding over higher class ticket passengers. This is strategic for the airlines, since per DOT law they have to pay a percentage of the one-way fare.
4. Check in early and get to the gate on time: For some airlines it is policy that the people who are last to check in or last to arrive at the gate for boarding of the flight are the most likely to be bumped if the flight is overbooked.
5. Don't take the last flight out: Earlier delayed, cancelled and overbooked flights can cause a backlog that ends up making your flight too full. Plus, fewer people will volunteer their seats when it’s the last flight of the day.
6. Check your luggage: Passengers traveling without luggage are easier to bump because the airline won't have to spend time searching for their bags.
7. People with disabilites, unaccompanied minors and people traveling with children get bumped less: These are typically the last people chosen for denied boarding on overbooked flights.