The Odyssey
Tony's Travel Tips

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Surprise!  You're Being Bumped!
     Summer vacation has begun and with that, air travel is in full gear. This summer, the airlines expect to see full flights to practically all their destinations. With fewer flights, reduced staff, and a need for more air traffic controllers, expect overbooking (a common airline practice) to result in an increased number of bumped passengers. Add to that flight that are delayed an cancelled, and the desire to get a seat increases substantially. What we passengers seldom consider is the possibility that, although the plane may be departing as scheduled, we may not be allowed to board because we are being bumped from the flight. 

     Bumping a passenger from a flight occurs when the airline sells more tickets than there are seats.  (However, some passengers from cancelled flights-those of first class and business class-would be given preferential treatment, and offered a seat in economy rather than have to wait until a flight with an empty seat to their destination becomes available.) There's nothing illegal about it. When it comes to overbooking, the carrier expects a number of last-minute no-shows. Rather than have an empty seat or two, the airline prefers to fly with a full aircraft.  They are usually right in their estimates, and occasionally even have a spare seat or two available for "stand-by" passengers.  But occasionally they are wrong, with more passengers showing up at the boarding gate than they have seats available.  When that happens, the airlines must find a way to reduce their passenger count to match the number of seats on the plane.  So someone is going to be denied boarding.  This practice is commonly referred to as "bumping" a passenger from the flight.

     The airline does not want to be the bad guy, so they begin the bumping process by first asking for volunteers to give up their seats.  They offer a guaranteed seat on a later flight and often sweeten the pot by also offering some kind of additional minimal compensation, like a dinner voucher or a night's stay at one of the local hotels if that flight is the last one of the day.  If there are no takers, they increase the compensation with added things like vouchers good for future travel, or even cash. If there are still no takers, they may increase the voucher or cash values.  Usually, someone will step forward, take the offer, and give up their seat. In this case, all ends well and everyone is happy.  This is called "voluntary bumping".  However, there are times and conditions were no one is willing to take the next flight no matter what compensation is offered.  In that case the airline may resort to an "involuntary bumping" and simply tell you that you are the one who has been selected to give up your seat and will be denied boarding.  Of course, you'll be put on the next available flight to your destination.

     Most carriers figure that is the end of that and will offer little compensation except - possibly - a meal voucher out of the goodness of their heart, or an overnight hotel room if your flight doesn't leave until the following morning.  Most passengers also figure that is the end of that and will take a slow walk to the nearest bar before continuing on to the next gate.  But there are things you can do to lessen the sting of being bumped that airlines refrain from telling you.  In this situation, they often take a "don't ask, don't tell" attitude.  But there are FAA guidelines that airlines must follow when bumping passengers from domestic flights. Before you walk away from the ticket counter, ask for a written statement describing the carriers boarding priority rules and criteria, as well as your rights.  This will show how they determined who gets bumped. 

     If they cannot get you to your destination within one hour of your original arrival time, the airline must pay you a check worth twice the amount of your one-way fare (but not to exceed $650) as compensation.  And, if your revised arrival time at your destination is more than two hours late, then the check amount would be double that amount (but not to exceed $1,300). The airline may offer you a travel voucher for a seat on a future flight in lieu of the cash, but you have the right to insist on the check.  The only requirement is that you must have a confirmed reservation and you must meet the airlines deadline for ticketing and check-in.  In addition, it makes sense to have a copy of your flight itinerary with you that shows the price you paid for each leg of your journey. 

     Also, before you leave for the airport, go on the airlines website and find their Contract of Carriage.  It is here that the airline posts all their legal requirements. Print those pages that stipulate what compensation they give travelers who are bumped.  Also go to the Department of Transportation website and see "A Consumer Guide to Air Travel" (www.transportation.gov/consumer/fly-rights).  Read both of these documents and get to know the rules of the game. 

     The airlines will not offer these compensations for involuntary bumping unless you ask for them, so don't be shy.  Do not accept the agent's word that there is nothing further the carrier can do; airline employees downplay your rights or spin them so you won't take advantage of them-that is what they are trained to do.  If the agent claims they can't do anything, ask to speak to their supervisor and take down their name.  If you suspect the airline hasn't been fair, register a complaint with the airlines.  Their website will have a link for that purpose.  If the airline response is unsatisfactory, register a complaint with the DOT (http://airconsumer.dot.gov/rules/rules.html). Be sure to have all your flight information (flight number, dates of travel, agents' names, etc.) available, and be civil about it.

     Furthermore, know that there is a priority in bumping which can be found in the airlines Contract of Carriage.  (Always, always, always read the airline Contract of Carriage! It spells out your rights as their passenger and what they agree to provide you with in the event you cannot board.) Just knowing what the priority is may improve your position and keep you from being bumped.  Some airlines may bump passengers who paid the lowest fares.  That way, if they must pay a cash compensation their losses are minimized.  However, most airlines determine who gets bumped based on the official check-in time for the flight.  Late arrivals go to the top of the "bump" list, so always try to arrive early.  Odds are that the last person to check in will be the first to be involuntarily bumped.