By now, I’m sure everyone has at least heard about the unfortunate incident on a United flight last week where a man was forcibly removed from a plane. I’m not going to get into what was wrong with that particular scenario, but being a frequent traveler and travel blogger, I read people’s comments on social media and quickly realized that the casual traveler knows very little about overbooking and denial of service. In addition, it’s not always easy to find information about a travel company’s policies to find out one’s rights if that happens so I hope the overview below will help.
First, know that overbooking doesn’t just happen with the airlines. Hotels do it. Rental car companies do it, too. Companies in the travel industry have learned over the years that they can count on a certain percentage of no shows and cancellations. Then, they sell more seats or rooms or cars than they have available, gambling that there will be enough cancellations or no shows to cover it. Sometimes that happens; other times it can turn into a nightmare for a traveler who has very little recourse.
Since this is such a huge topic, today I’m just going to cover airlines. Next week, I will cover hotels and then the following week I will cover rental car companies so be sure to check back for more information.
Federal law (United States) allows airlines to overbook to compensate for “no-shows.” If an overbooking situation occurs, U.S. Department of Transportation rules require that an airline ask for volunteers to who would be willing to take a later flight for compensation. If there aren’t enough volunteers, then federal law allows the airline to involuntarily bump passengers. If that happens, the airline must provide the passenger a written statement describing their rights. In addition, they may be due compensation. If the passenger is put on a flight that will arrive at their destination within one hour of the originally scheduled time, they are not entitled to any compensation. If they will arrive between one and two hours for a domestic flight or one and four hours for an international flight, then the passenger is entitled to compensation equal to 200% of the cost of their one-way flight up to $675. If the passenger will arrive more than two hours for domestic flights or four hours internationally or if the airline does not arrange alternate transportation (notice they are not required to find you a different flight by law), the passenger is entitled to 400% of the cost of their one-way flight up to $1,350. There are exceptions and other rules as well (see https://www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/fly-rights).
When purchasing a plane ticket, the passenger also agrees to the airline’s Contract of Carriage. A passenger is informed of that generally at the time of booking, but like all those little checkboxes of Terms & Conditions, most don’t read them or even really know they’re there, but it’s important because it tells you what the airline can and can’t do and what they must provide. In most cases, the Contract of Carriage or Conditions of Carriage allows the airline to deny travel to anyone, even after they’ve boarded the plane. For example, American Airline’s list for reasons to refuse transport include “refuse to obey instructions from any flight crew member” and “are clothed in a manner that would cause discomfort or offense to other passengers.” Southwest states, “Carrier may, in its sole discretion, refuse to transport, or may remove from an aircraft at any point, any Passenger in any of the circumstances listed below.” Those listed below include “Any person who cannot be transported safely for any reason,” so basically, they can make the determination. United’s reasons for refusal of transport include “Passengers who fail to comply with or interfere with the duties of the members of the flight crew, federal regulations, or security directives” and “passengers who have or cause a malodorous condition” and “passengers who are unwilling to follow UA’s policy that prohibits voice calls after the aircraft doors have closed, while taxiing in preparation for takeoff, or while airborne.” The Contract of Carriage is important because it provides what the airline will do for you if something goes wrong, whether it’s a cancelled flight, lost luggage, or if you’re involuntarily bumped from a flight. What is important to note, however, is that nearly all airlines also have a clause that states that their Contract of Carriage can be changed without notice… so just because you read it when you booked a flight a year ago doesn’t mean it says the same thing now.
If passengers were denied boarding involuntarily often, we’d hear about it, right? Actually, no, because the outcome is usually not nearly as dramatic as what happened on that United flight (and it generally happens before the person is on the plane). It actually happens quite often and United is not even nearly the biggest offender. That distinction belongs to Southwest. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Southwest denied boarding involuntarily nearly 15,000 times in 2016 (see the chart below). Keep in mind this chart only takes into consideration passengers who did not volunteer to give up their seats. The number of passengers who voluntarily gave up their seats in exchange for compensation is much, much higher.
|Bureau of Transportation Statistics|
|Passengers Involuntarily Denied Boarding in 2016|
|United Air Lines||3765|
|Delta Air Lines||1238|
Is there anything a passenger can do to prevent getting involuntarily bumped or removed from a flight? There are no guarantees, but there are a few things that may help. First, check in early. Some airlines, Southwest for example, involuntarily bump those who were the last to check in. Second, be sure you have a confirmed seat assignment. Many airlines bump passengers without a seat first. Third, join the loyalty program and be loyal if you can. It may not be advertised, but I can’t see an airline bumping a “premiere” member when they can bump a casual traveler. Finally, don’t be afraid to pay more for your ticket. Because the airline must pay compensation based on the price of the ticket, it makes economic sense for them to bump those with the lowest fares. As far as removal – the easiest way to stay on a flight is to comply with crew members’ instructions. Turn off your phone or put it in airplane mode. Don’t get up if the seat belt sign is on. The common denominator of the most highly publicized removals is that the passenger argued with a crew member.
So what if you absolutely HAVE to be somewhere and you were bumped from your flight? If you have a verifiable need to get to your location prior to the replacement flight (as in your cruise will leave without you, you have a contract that you will breach if you don’t arrive, etc.), speak to the gate agent or go to a customer service counter and politely explain the situation, perhaps even have the documentation of the need in hand. Many airlines include the possibility of putting a passenger on another airline at no additional cost to get them to their destination on time. For example, United’s Contract of Carriage states, “If space is available on another Carrier’s flight regardless of class of service, such flights may be used upon United’s sole discretion and the Passenger’s request at no additional cost to the Passenger only if such flight provides an earlier arrival than the UA flight offered in 3) a) above.” While that may sound far-fetched, it happens. I wasn’t denied boarding, but I had a cancelled United flight and I was scheduled to speak the next morning. I explained the situation to customer service and asked if they would consider getting me a flight on another airline. The agent booked me on a Delta flight that got me to my destination later than I planned, but still on time for my event.
This may also be a good time to mention travel insurance. If you have somewhere you HAVE to be, it’s good to have insurance to protect you. See other reasons why you may want to invest in a travel insurance policy.
Be sure to check out the other posts regarding overbooking:
Part 3 – Rental Cars – Will Your Rental Car Company Hold a Car for You or Will You End Up Like Jerry Seinfeld? Coming May 1.