Unfortunately, overbooking a flight is not illegal, and airlines overbook flights to a certain extent in order to compensate for “no-shows.” That means that some passengers are “bumped” off their originally scheduled flight.
The Department of Transportation (DOT) requires every airline to offer passengers who are bumped involuntarily written notification describing their rights with an explaining of how the airline decides who will be offered a seat on the over-sold flight.
For the travelers who do not get a seat, they are usually offered “denied boarding compensation” which is monetary compensation, usually in the form of a check. The monetary amount depends on the ticket value and length of travel.
There are some caveats:
Within 1 Hour of Your Scheduled Arrival:
If bumped involuntarily and the airline provides substitute transportation providing travel to your final destination (including later connections) within an hour of your original scheduled arrival time, there is no compensation.
Between 1-2 Hours of Your Scheduled Arrival:
If the airline provides substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after your original arrival time (or between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay you an amount equal to 200% of your one-way fare to your final destination that day ($675 maximum).
More than 2 Hours after Your Scheduled Arrival:
If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later (or more than four hours on international flights), or the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles to 400% of your one-way fare ($1,350 maximum)
If your ticket does not show a fare – you are flying with an award ticket or a ticket issued by a consolidator, denied boarding compensation is based on the lowest ticket amount in the same class of service for which you are ticketed.
You always get to keep your original ticket and use it on another flight. If you choose to make your own arrangements, you can request an “involuntary refund” for the ticket for your bumped flight. The denied boarding compensation is for your inconvenience.
If you paid for additional services on your original flight such as checked bags or preferred seat selection and you did not receive those services on your substitute flight or were required to pay on your substitute flight, the airline that bumped you should compensate you for those fees. There are a few conditions and exceptions:
- To be eligible for any compensation, you are required to have a confirmed reservation. A written confirmation from the airline or authorized agent or reservation company qualifies if the airline cannot find your reservation their system, so long as you did not cancel your reservation.
- Every carrier has check-in deadline – most domestic flights require you to be at the departure gate between 10 and 30 minutes before departure. International flights can require up to three hours prior to scheduled departure.
- The majority of the carriers require your presence at the boarding area. If you miss your deadline for check in, your reservation could be cancelled by the airlines. If your reservation is cancelled, you would not be eligible for involuntarily compensation.
Again, if the airline arranges substitute transportation and is scheduled to arrive at your destination within one hour of your originally scheduled arrival time, no compensation is required.
If there is an equipment substitution to a smaller aircraft than originally scheduled, the carrier is not required to compensate travelers as a result of the aircraft change.
If the equipment was changed from 60 seats to 30 seats due to safety or weight reasons, the airline is not required to compensate the delayed passengers.
For aircraft with 30 seats or less, charter flights, or international flights inbound to the United States, this rule does not apply.
Airlines are allowed to make and follow their own boarding process. This process then allows the carriers to set a status of who will be bumped in the event of an oversold situation with not enough volunteers. Some airlines will bump in the order of who checked in last or by rate category, starting at the lowest.
Airlines offer vouchers with a monetary value or a ticket for future travel on their airlines for denied boarding compensation. You do have the right to ask for a check instead.
There is usually a 30 day window from the date the check is issued to accept the amount of the check, or to try to negotiate more compensation from the airlines. The Department of Transportation (DOT) denied boarding regulation states the airlines’ minimum compensation obligation to travelers that are bumped involuntarily.
For more on airline overbooking, check out our post on voluntary bumping.