Overbooked Flights: What to Do if You Get Bumped

Just two weeks after the Great Leggings Debacle, United Airlines is in hot water again — this time, for the way they handled an overbooked flight. An incident occurred on a United flight from Chicago, IL to Louisville, KY on Sunday, April 9 that has everyone talking about overbooked flights and airline practices. Today, we’ll take a look at what happened on United Flight 3411, the growing issue of oversold flights, and consider what you should do if you get bumped from your flight.

What Happened in Chicago?

On Sunday evening, a passenger on United Flight 3411 posted a shocking video on Facebook. The video showed security officers violently dragging a passenger off of the overbooked flight. Another passenger posted a similar video on Twitter. The story immediately went viral.

According to eyewitnesses, all passengers had already boarded the completely full flight when an announcement was made that four United employees needed to fly to Louisville. They requested that four travelers volunteer to get off the flight, in exchange for a later flight and some compensation. The compensation offered must not have been very appealing, because no one volunteered to be bumped. The airline then selected several travelers and asked them to get off the plane. One couple complied and left the plane.

Another man who was selected refused to leave. This man, whose name has not yet been released, stated that he was a doctor who needed to get to Louisville urgently so he could see his patients at the hospital in the morning. The United officials didn’t accept this and continued to demand that he leave the flight. Eventually, three security guards were summoned, and the man was roughly grabbed out of his seat. The passenger hit his head on the seat as he was hauled out, and was dragged up the aisle and off the plane, bleeding.

United is currently trying to resolve the situation with the injured passenger. At this time, it’s not known what type of compensation he may receive.

Why Are There So Many Overbooked Flights?

Airlines routinely overbook their flights, meaning that they sell more tickets than they have seats on the plane. They do this because some passengers will inevitably not show up for the flight. Whether it’s because of illness, oversleeping, or simply a change in plans, there will almost always be someone who does not check in for their flight. With profit margins in the industry low, airlines can’t afford to fly with empty seats. They’d rather run the risk that too many passengers will show up than too few!

Even though overselling flights is a norm in the industry, we never notice that a flight is overbooked until we find ourselves at the gate, waiting to board, and we hear the announcement that they do not have enough seats. The airline will ask for volunteers to give up their seats. The volunteers will be booked on to a later flight and offered additional compensation, such as credit to use to purchase future flights. If not enough travelers volunteer, the airline will then select travelers to be involuntarily bumped from the flight.

Last year, approximately 40,000 travelers were bumped from flights (either voluntarily or involuntarily) on the 12 largest US airlines. That’s not too bad, considering those 12 airlines flew almost 660 million passengers last year!

Do Airlines Randomly Select Travelers to be Bumped?

In a word, no. You are more likely to be involuntarily bumped from your flight if:

  • You are flying to your final destination, rather than connecting to another flight.
  • You purchased a ticket in the least-expensive fare class.
  • You either have low frequent-flyer status with the airline or don’t belong to the frequent flyer program at all.
  • You were among the last people to check in for the flight.

What Should You Do if You Are on an Overbooked Flight?

If you travel enough, it’ll happen to you. You’ll be checked in for your flight, seated at the gate, and you’ll hear the call come over the loudspeaker. Your flight is overbooked, and they are looking for volunteers to give up their seats.

Should You Volunteer to Be Bumped?

Depending on your situation, you may find it to your advantage to volunteer! The airline will book you on to another flight to get you to your destination, at no cost to you, and will offer you additional compensation. The compensation usually is in the form of flight vouchers, or credit to use to purchase tickets on that airline for a future flight. Here are some things to consider if you should volunteer:

  • Are you headed home? It makes more sense to volunteer to get home a bit later than to willingly give up time on your vacation.
  • Do you have any pressing reasons to get home as soon as possible? If you have urgent work commitments or need to get home before the babysitter leaves, don’t give up your seat!
  • How long will you be delayed? Are you going to get home just a few hours later, or will you have to stay overnight? (If you have to stay overnight, the airline should pay for a hotel and meals in addition to compensating you for your ticket.)
  • Do you have connecting flights and checked baggage? Rebooking your travel will be much easier if you do not have connecting flights. In particular, if you already checked your luggage and have connecting flights, you run the risk of your bags going astray.
  • What compensation will you receive? If you are being offered flight vouchers or credit, you should find out how long the credit will be valid and consider whether you are likely to want to fly to one of that airline’s destinations in that time period.

What If You are Involuntarily Bumped?

Stay calm. The airline is within their rights to deny boarding to anyone, for any reason, under the Contract of Carriage. (This is the fine print regulations that you undoubtedly didn’t read when you bought your ticket.) Although United should never have allowed the situation in Chicago to escalate to violence, they did have the right to ask the doctor to give up his seat.

If you have an extremely pressing reason to ask the airline to reconsider, ask if there is a supervisor you can speak to. However, be prepared to have your request denied.

When you get off the plane, speak with a gate agent immediately. They will rebook you on to the next available flight, which may even be with a different airline. If you have checked baggage, ask for assistance in having that returned to you.

Try to get written confirmation of the compensation you will be given for giving up your seat. You are entitled to the same compensation for being involuntarily bumped that was offered to volunteers!

Although it’s an annoying situation, we urge you to be polite to the airline employees. They didn’t want to have to deny you boarding, and they’re in the position to offer you help in making the rest of your travel as smooth as possible.

Have you ever been bumped from a flight, either by choice or not? Tell us in the comments!

Originally published at passportinfo.com on April 11, 2017.

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