What If I … Am Bumped From My Flight?

By Molly Jensen

People get bumped from a flight when too many people are booked on said flight. But why would an airline overbook a flight? It doesn’t make sense — right?

Well, to airlines wanting to make a profit, it makes a lot of sense. The airlines figure that for every flight a percentage of people will simply not show up. The airline doesn’t care whether they’re sick or lost or bewildered; they just know a seat is going unfilled.

Each airline calculates the percentage unfilled seats. It’s known as the No-Show Rate, and it’s used to determine how many extra tickets an airline can book in order to cover for some of the no-shows.

The bumping starts when an airline realizes it doesn’t have enough seats for the people who’ve shown up. First, the airline will ask for volunteers to be bumped. If it’s okay with Aunt Louise that you miss your brunch date, and you take one for the team and volunteer to be bumped, follow these guidelines:

  • Find out when you can have a confirmed seat on a later flight, because if you’re just going to be put on standby for the next flight, you might get bumped again. And while missing brunch with Aunt Louise is okay, missing dinner might be a capital offense.
  • As a volunteer, you can bargain for vouchers for tickets, meals, and hotel rooms (easy), and even bargain for cash and gift cards (not as easy, but often doable), but whether you get these things depends on when the next available flight would be and what the airline is willing to give you. As with any voucher, ask about restrictions.
  • Volunteers have the right to know their chances of being involuntarily bumped. If you’re at the top of the list, you might as well get involuntarily bumped, because that compensation is guaranteed.

The U.S. Department of Transportation doesn’t regulate what sort of compensation volunteers get, but it does stipulate what sort of reimbursement must be given to people who are involuntarily bumped from their flight.

Airlines decide the bumping order of a flight, and it can be based on ticket price, check-in order, or seat assignment. If you’re involuntarily bumped, you’re entitled to check or cash compensation — not a voucher you can only use on Wednesdays in the middle of winter, but real money. It’s important people realize this, because you never know if an airline will try to give you less than you deserve. (It happens.)

The amount you’re given does depend on when you actually arrive at your original destination.

  • If you arrive within an hour of your originally scheduled time, you won’t receive any compensation.
  • If you arrive between one and two hours late (one to four hours on international flights), you receive 200 percent of your one-way fare (up to $675).
  • If you’re more than two hours late (four hours on international flights), or if the airline doesn’t make any substitute travel arrangements for you, you receive 400 percent of your fare (up to $1,350).
  • If you bought your ticket with miles or a voucher, you’ll be refunded based on the lowest price charged for a ticket in the same class you would have flown.
  • If you paid for any optional services (checked bags, seat selection, and so on) and you don’t receive them on your substitute flight or have to pay for them again, the airline that bumped you has to refund those payments.
If you do anything to compromise your reservation, you may lose your right to get reimbursement for getting bumped.

In order to be compensated, you have to have a confirmed reservation. If you miss the check-in deadline or get to your gate late, you may lose your reservation and any reimbursement for getting bumped.

As with all good things, there must be exceptions. Airlines are not required to compensate people who are bumped …

  • Because the airline has to substitute their larger plane for a smaller one;
  • Because of safety reasons (on flights with 30 to 60 people); or
  • On charter flights or flights with fewer than 30 passengers.

It wouldn’t hurt to ask if the airline would pretty please give you something for your troubles, because you never know what they’ll say. You’ve already been bumped from your flight; what’s the worst that can happen?

One last thing: Buy some travel insurance – AirCare from Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection. It’s inexpensive (it starts at just $34), and if you’re bumped from a flight that causes you to miss a connection, or if there’s a delay or cancelled flight, you’ll get paid instantly. It can turn any compensation you get from being bumped into a double payday.

Molly Jensen is a member of the marketing team at Berkshire Hathaway Travel Protection.