It is common practice, and yes, legal for airlines to oversell seats on their flights. There are thousands of nightmare stories involving being bumped from an oversold flight and having to wait sometimes 14 hours for the next option out. So, here is a breakdown of what happens with a few first hand experiences and your rights to compensation.
WHO: You have had your tickets, your seats and your plans and confirmed your trip. You arrived on time and made no changes. Heck, you are the model passenger! However, you get bumped from your flight. FYI – the Department of Transportation or (DOT) reports there are several factors that play into who gets bumped. The top 3 are: passengers who are last to check in, those who paid the lowest fare and those who don’t have an advance seat assignment.
WHAT: An agent calls you up and informs you the flight was oversold and you are now booked on the next flight out.
WHY: As mentioned, it is common practice for airlines to sell more seats than the plan has. Why do they do it? I am sure you have already guessed the reason. Airlines want to pack the planes and know that there will inevitably no shows and cancellations.
Jennifer was traveling with her husband and daughter when they were bumped. The family was turning an out of town meeting into an opportunity for a long weekend escape. “We did everything required. We showed up, checked in and still had an hour to kill before our flight took off, yet we were still bumped to a different flight that took off six hours later. I missed my meeting and our hotel reservations were cancelled and they tried to bill us as a no-show even though I called and informed them of our situation. It was a nightmare!“
*Some hotel policies are tricky. Typically, if you are not there by midnight, you are stamped as a no-show. Make sure you call your hotel and let them know what is happening, explore your options and take the name and position of the person you are speaking with. Generic terms laid out on your reservations may state no refunds or rescheduling, but in some cases the staff is willing to work with you and maybe bend a rule or two. It doesn’t hurt to try. Keeping the number of your hotel on a piece of paper in your purse/wallet is one of my best tips. I don’t depend on electronics as they never seem to work when you need them the most!
Adam was traveling with his wife and almost 2 year old son. “We were on the plane when a flight attendant asked us to put our son in our lap for the 6 hour flight. We had paid nearly $300 for a ticket for him and she tried to insist we needed to make room for other passengers. I produced our ticket for him and informed her we paid for the seat. She eventually relented, but asked again a few minutes later if we were willing to make the seat available. I felt bad for the passenger who was bumped, but holding a wiggly toddler in our laps for 6 hours on our first family trip to Disney World wasn’t fair to us either as we weren’t responsible for the overbooking.“
*This isn’t the first time I have encountered this issue. With most airlines, children 2 and over are required to purchase a ticket. In fact, children aged 2 and above legally require a seat that has a seat-belt/restraint. In this situation, if you bought the ticket – don’t back down. Not only are you stuck with a tot on your lap…it can also be dangerous.
There are many different scenarios in which this can happen, but it usually ends the same. Agents will offer up flight vouchers for future travel to try and smooth the situation over. It seems like they are doing you a favor, but they are required to offer compensation. That compensation also doesn’t have to be vouchers. You have the right to cash compensation instead of flight vouchers.
For someone who doesn’t travel often or use airlines much, they can be useless. Often, they also come with tight and non-negotiable expiration dates or terms. You can also get more compensation as the DOT flyer’s rights bill entitles you to twice the price of your ticket – up to $800 – if you’re delayed for two hours or less. If you’re delayed longer, you can receive up to $1,300 for your bumpy situation.
Delta offered a “bid to bump” in which passengers name a price for their seat. In my personal experience, this is more or less used as a way to get a list of volunteers and then everyone is offered the same amount for their seat. Regardless, ask for cash/check.
DOT regulations require the airline to start by asking volunteers willing to give up their seats for compensation. If no one bites at the offer or the don’t get enough volunteers to give up their seat, the airline then bumps passengers involuntarily. Those passengers are entitled to a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the airline decides whom it will bump first. In most cases, those bumped involuntarily are entitled to cash compensation that varies depending on the value of the tickets and the length of the delay. (you can submit complaints by visiting the DOT consumer complaint page.
There are exceptions to the compensation rights like, if you’re bumped but arrive at your destination within an hour of the original time – no compensation for you my friend.
If you want to avoid the mess all together, stick with airlines that have tighter refund policy on fares like JetBlue and Virgin America. They have a much lower bumping rate as passengers are more likely to show up and, conversely, fill the planes up without having to overbook.
Other rights you might want to consider…
~Cancellation fees are prohibited for the first 24 hours after booking a flight.
~Airlines are required to reimburse you when they lose your baggage or your baggage is delayed. (You can get up to $3300 on domestic flights and $1500 on international flights which varies depending on how long you are without your belongings.)
~Airlines are required to give you access to a restroom and water at all times once you board.
~Your plane cannot sit on the tarmac for more than three hours without letting you off on a domestic flight or four hours on an international flight.
~If your flight is severely delayed or cancelled, most airlines will allow you to request a full refund, even on a non-refundable fare, if you choose not to fly.