Overbooked flights: What you should know
Airlines are allowed to oversell flights, and they frequently do, because they assume that some passengers won't show up. U.S. airlines bumped 40,000 passengers last year, not counting those who volunteered to give up their seats.
But there are some federal rules that apply.
When they know a flight is oversold, airlines will ask for volunteers to give up their seat, usually for a travel voucher or other reward, and a seat on a later flight. According to the government, 434,000 passengers voluntarily gave up seats on the country's largest 12 airlines last year, including nearly 63,000 on United. The champion of overbooking was Delta Air Lines — about 130,000 passengers on Delta agreed to give up their seats last year.
When voluntary offers don't work, the airlines can deny boarding — or "bump" passengers against their will. When it comes to forcing passengers off a flight, Southwest is the undisputed leader among the larger airlines — it bumped nearly 15,000 passengers last year, according to government figures.
Federal rules spell out how much the airline must pay each passenger who is forced off a flight. Airlines must give bumped passengers a written statement that explains their compensation rights.
Compensation varies by how long the passenger will be delayed. If the airline can rebook the passenger and get him to his destination within an hour of his originally scheduled arrival time, no compensation is required.
If the passenger will arrive between one and two hours later than planned — or between one and four hours for an international flight — the airline must pay the passenger twice the amount of the one-way fare to his destination, up to $675.
If the passenger will be delayed more than two hours — or four hours for international flights — the airline must pay him four times the one-way fare, up to $1,350.
Who generally gets bumped
Airlines will usually bump people flying on the cheapest tickets because the required compensation will be lower. Carriers have other rules, too. United Airlines says that when deciding who gets bumped, it considers how long it will take for passengers to reach their destination on a later flight, it won't break up a family group, and won't bump minors who are traveling alone.
Airlines are most likely to oversell flights during busy travel periods such as spring break and the summer-vacation season, but bumping can happen any time there is bad weather that causes some flights to be canceled.
If you wanted to get bumped
Some savvy travelers see oversold flights as an opportunity. They'll give up their seats if the airline makes a sweet enough offer. Some check their flight's seating chart ahead of time to see if it's sold out. If you aim to be bumped, sit near the gate agent's desk so you can pounce before other passengers take that offer of travel vouchers, gift cards, and sometimes cash. If offered a spot on a later flight, make sure it's a confirmed seat. And don't check a bag.