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Airline Bumping: What You Need to Know

When the travel skies are loaded, especially during vacation or holiday periods, it pays to be prepared when airline gate personnel start “bumping” passengers in overbooked situations. 

The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) offers some suggestions on how to cope with too few seats for too many passengers.

Get an advance seat assignment

Even if the airline only has a middle seat left to confirm, be sure to take it before the flight. Passengers with a seat assignment typically are bumped only if they arrive late and their seat assignment is released.

Check-in online

If you don’t have an advance seat assignment, or you want to change your seat assignment, check-in online if possible. Most airlines allow you to check-in online within 24 hours of departure.

Seat assignments that were not available at the time of ticketing may be available, including unblocked frequent flyer seats and seat assignments of flyers who were upgraded to first class. Most airlines automatically upgrade premium flyers within 24-72 hours of departure—and those coach seat assignments may be released for pre-assignment to others.

Get to the airport early

If you are unable to get an advance seat assignment, get to the airport well before the scheduled departure. Some airlines reserve a portion of their seat assignment inventory for airport check-in.

Also, make sure that your name is placed on the “standby” seat assignment list. While your ticket may say “confirmed,” you will be treated by the airline as a “standby” customer.

Seats that are held by no-show passengers or passengers that upgrade at check-in are distributed to “standby” passengers in the order of check-in.

If you’re faced with getting bumped, ASTA provides these tips:

Know the lingo

The confusion regarding compensation often stems from differences between voluntary bumping and involuntary bumping.

Voluntary bumping occurs when a passenger with a confirmed seat assignment agrees to give up his or her seat for negotiated compensation. The compensation level is not regulated by the Department of Transportation (DOT).

The airlines give employees guidelines for bargaining with passengers, and they may select those volunteers willing to sell back their reservations for the lowest price. As a result, it’s important that you ask the right questions before agreeing to give up your seat in exchange for a free ticket or voucher.

Involuntary bumping occurs when an airline denies a paid passenger boarding on a flight because it oversold a flight. The DOT does regulate compensation for involuntary bumping.

Know the questions to ask

If you volunteer to give up your seat in response to an airline offer of a free ticket, it’s important that you ask about any restrictions. Here are some suggested questions:

  • Is there an expiration date by when I must use the ticket?
  • Are there any ‘blackout dates’ such as holidays, when I can’t use the ticket?
  • Can it be used for an international flight?
  • Can I make a reservation using the voucher, and if so, how far in advance?

Know your rights

In 2008, DOT issued new bumping rules with increases in compensation for affected travelers. Involuntarily bumped passengers can receive up to $400 if the airline can get them to their destination within 2 hours for domestic flights or within 4 hours for international flights. Delays beyond that can cost the airline up to $800 per passenger.

The Aviation Consumer Protection Division within DOT has a more detailed explanation of your rights in Fly-Rights: A Consumer Guide to Air Travel. You can find the guide online at: http://airconsumer.dot.gov/publications/flyrights.htm.

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