How to Keep Your Seat on an Overbooked Plane—And What to Do If You Can’t

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By Mike DuBose and Debra DuBose with Blake DuBose

Although the voice coming over the intercom may tell you to “sit back and relax,” flying is stressful—even in first class! Packing, getting to the airport on time, finding a place to park, checking luggage, waiting in long lines, going through security, navigating around crowded terminals, and boarding the airplane make air travel a frustrating experience for many people. Still, the promise of what’s waiting for them at their destination—be it a relaxing tropical vacation, an exciting work trip, or a reunion with loved ones—entices determined travelers to board planes each day. Most people put considerable preparation into their trips, making hotel reservations, arranging ground transportation, and packing the most items possible into their luggage. Unfortunately, airlines can throw a wrench into all of that careful planning, so it pays to be as prepared as possible!

People around the world were recently shocked by an online video of a passenger being physically dragged off an overbooked flight. The flight was fully booked and all passengers seated, but the airline needed to transport four airline employees who unexpectedly arrived at the last minute. Flight attendants first requested volunteers who would take a later flight in exchange for a $1000 voucher and a hotel stay. When no one volunteered, four passengers were selected to leave based on criteria defined in the airline’s contract of carriage (including frequent-flier status, fare amount, check-in time, and connecting flight implications).Three complied, but one passenger resisted, and aviation security officials removed him bodily from the plane, an action recorded by another passenger in a now-infamous video.

The violence that took place on that flight was certainly inexcusable. Fortunately, such instances are rare. In our experience, the forced removal of the passenger is not a common sight, and we’ve flown more than 2 million sky miles over 45 years! Nearly all passengers will comply with flight attendants or voluntarily give up their seats for compensation. Many times, gate agents go out of their way to provide incentives to lure passengers from a flight. Still, it can be shocking for many passengers to realize that, legally, airlines do have the right to physically force them off the plane.

Airlines’ contracts of carriage, which all customers automatically accept when buying plane tickets (and that most never read), say that the airline may remove any passenger for refusing to obey instructions from the crew. (Compliance with crew orders is also mandated by federal law.) The purpose of these rules is to ensure that crew members are not distracted or kept from their duties during the flight, something that could prove dangerous to all passengers onboard.

Contracts of carriage also often contain clauses stating that passengers may be removed when a flight is oversold—even though it’s the airline’s fault for selling more tickets than seats! In fact, according to an April 2017 Economist article, “Overbooking is fairly common: over half a million passengers in the United States were left at the gate in 2016 holding valid tickets for a flight.”

Did you miss that clause the last time you booked a flight? It’s unsurprising: airline contracts can be both lengthy and confusing. According to the Wall Street Journal, the three major US airlines’ contracts of carriage range from 21 to 56 pages long!

No one wants to be denied boarding, kicked off their flight, or delayed on the way to a much-anticipated vacation. However, with so many complex rules and regulations in play, it can be difficult to understand what your rights are as a passenger. Throw in other factors like inclement weather and mechanical issues, and sometimes it can feel like you’ll never get to your destination! We examined current research to compile the following factors that can minimize your chances of being removed from a flight:

Choose the right airline: Every carrier is different in terms of how often they oversell flights—and what compensation they offer to those who are bumped. JetBlue Airways is the only airline that never sells more seats than it has available. All others use complicated formulas based on the route, date, and time of day to estimate how many people will fail to show up for the flight; then, oversell tickets based on that data. Due to the extensive research that the airlines have done on no-show data, their predictions are usually accurate. However, problems arise when more people than expected show up for the flight.

When it becomes apparent that a flight has been oversold, airlines take different tactics. Their common objective is to solicit enough volunteers so that they don’t have to remove anyone from the flight involuntarily. Approaches to reaching this goal, however, vary. Delta Airlines has been known to offer generous American Express gift cards to persuade travelers to give up their seats, while others might offer airline travel vouchers in the low hundreds of dollars that expire in a year. Although Delta doesn’t necessarily overbook any less than other airlines, its willingness to provide attractive incentives to volunteers has earned it the lowest involuntary removal rate of any major American airline. Recently, Delta authorized supervisors to offer up to $9,950 to bumped passengers!

Citing U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) statistics, an April 2017 article by Oliver Morrison of the Wichita Eagle says that “Delta Airlines is the best of the major airlines, with about 1 in every 100,000 removed involuntarily.” Morrison contrasts Delta’s rate with that of Southwest Airlines, which removes 10 out of every 100,000 passengers involuntarily. Consider this data when booking your flight. You usually get what you pay for, so a more expensive ticket may end up being worth it in terms of inconvenience if you get bumped from your low-cost flight!

In addition to which company you choose to fly with, plane size also matters. Data shows that regional jets have much higher rates of involuntary bumping than larger carriers, and flights on smaller planes are more often cancelled due to weather than larger ones. Shifting crew needs or staff delays can impact availability as well; most airlines would rather remove a few passengers from a flight to accommodate a flight crew than delay an entire plane full of people that the flight crew needs to reach.

Pick the right flight: Try to fly earlier in the day rather than later. Especially in summer, weather conditions are better in the morning than in the afternoon, when thunderstorms tend to develop. Also, if there are still other flights going to your destination later in the day, you have a better chance of getting there if you are denied your seat on an earlier flight. People on the last flight to a given destination for that day are less likely to volunteer their seats, making it more likely that an airline will have to forcibly take people off the plane.

We recommend that you book layovers of two hours or more between flights. That way, you will have a time cushion and may still be able to make your connection, even if your earlier flight runs late. If you have any non-refundable activities like cruises or tours planned at your destination, we also suggest scheduling your arrival at least one day beforehand. This builds in some extra time in case you are delayed getting there, and also gives you a day to recover from any jet lag you may be experiencing!

Join frequent flyer programs: Airlines value their frequent flyers, and membership in their club makes you less likely to be involuntarily removed from a flight. (It also provides other benefits, such as advanced check-in, the ability to save your personal and security information to your profile, and luggage tracking, for example.) Even if you only plan to fly with an airline once, join their program before departing. It costs nothing, and even one flight can generate significant reward miles. For example, when you purchase an international flight or a trip to Hawaii, the frequent airline flyer points generated are almost enough to get you a free domestic ticket!

Apply for airline credit cards: If you fly moderately often or frequently, consider getting a credit card with the airline. Benefits include double points when a flight is charged to the card and potential seat upgrades. If you meet certain spending thresholds, you will be upgraded to a higher frequent flier status, which gains you more benefits and reduces your likelihood of involuntary removal even further. Some cards, like Delta American Express Reserve, also offer a free companion ticket and free access to airport lounges (i.e., Delta Sky Club).

Download airlines’ apps on your smartphone: Many airlines have released extremely helpful apps that are available for free download. If you sense you may not make your flight because of being on standby, for example, Delta’s app will allow you to view other flights and connect to the airline’s call center to ask to be placed on backup for them. When presented with the option after downloading, make sure to give the app permission to alert you of any changes in your flight itinerary!

Airline apps also allow you to track your luggage, keep your electronic boarding pass handy, retain key airline contact information, view future flight details, see your airline points, book a flight, view pricing, and more. When flights are overbooked, you may see solicitations for volunteers (and the amount of compensation offered) when you check in on your airline’s app. One valuable new feature is that if you are wondering about your status on an upgrade or a waitlist, you can view where you are in the pecking order on your app.

Book wisely: Travelers who have a set seat assignment are less likely to be booted than those who are on standby, according to several researchers. Make sure you are given an actual seat row and number when booking. Many airlines will actually let you select your seat from an image of the plane’s layout when buying your ticket online.

First class or economy comfort passengers and those who belong to loyalty clubs are less likely to have their seats taken away than infrequent flyers traveling in coach. A Bloomberg article by Justin Bachman, Alan Levin, and Mary Schlangenstein reinforces this idea: “When choosing who gets the bump, airlines typically assess your value: How often do you fly, how much did you pay for the ticket, how many miles have you amassed in the loyalty program, is there a connection in your trip? Are you headed to Denver or Tahiti? How many more flights remain that day to the destination? Are there minors flying?” they wrote.

If you are traveling with a group or with family members, it’s also important to ensure that you all reserve your tickets at the same time using the same reservation number, which links your tickets. That way, you’re less likely to have one person booted from a flight while the others stay on, interfering with group travel plans. Linking tickets also helps keep you together if your flight is cancelled and you (and others travelling with you) are automatically booked on the next flight. If you are unable to book all tickets at the same time, call the airline and ask that they link your passenger name records so they are associated with one another in the system (this is especially important when traveling with children).

Airlines have policies in place against bumping unaccompanied children or the disabled. If you have a disability, ensure that you alert the airline in advance and remind the gate agent. Few people know this, but most airlines reserve four bulkhead seats for last-minute disabled fliers. The disabled and families with young children are also typically allowed to board early.

Check in as far in advance as possible before your flight: As Wall Street Journal travel columnist Scott McCartney noted in a recent article, “Some airlines will consider check-in time in deciding who gets bumped.” Ideally, you should check in online the day before you are supposed to fly. Most airlines will send you an e-mail alerting you that you may now check in, and you can simply follow the provided link. That way, your check-in time is before many other passengers, you can select your seat assignment (if you have not already done so), and you can print off your tickets and/or request a text message to your smartphone with your boarding pass. (We recommend doing both, just to be safe.)

If you plan to check in at the airline’s counter, make sure you do so within the timeframe specified by the airline (usually, more than one hour before takeoff for domestic flights and two hours if flying internationally). Domestic flights tend to board about 30 minutes before scheduled takeoffs, but international flights may begin boarding one hour in advance since the airliners are larger. International flights also tend to be very punctual since they usually fly in the night before, and you can easily get bumped if you are late.

Checking in early is important because the people who were the last to check in are often the first to be denied their seats in an overbooking situation. Some airlines also want passengers to be physically present at the gate at 30-60 minutes before boarding (exact times depend on the airline). If you’re late, you may forfeit your rights to your seat, or even your compensation for being bumped! Make sure to check the television monitors in the airport to ensure you go to the correct gate—sometimes, they change, and the replacement gate could be a long walk away.

If you are still bumped from a flight, know your rights: Although the rules governing air travel can seem confusing, there are some clear regulations in place. The Transportation Department requires airlines to provide passengers who are denied boarding with a written explanation of why they were bumped (the airline’s criteria for determining who has to give up their seats) and what their rights are. Generally, passengers with no seat number are bumped first. The remaining passengers are sorted by fare type, and the cheapest fares are put at the top of the list to be denied boarding. Those who paid this rate are sorted by check-in time, with the last to check in the first to be bumped.

According to DOT regulations, passengers must be compensated for the inconvenience if they are denied their reserved seat. McCartney notes, “Airlines are required to offer vouchers to volunteers who give up seats. If an airline denies boarding to ticketed passengers, it must put them on the next available flight and cover any hotel costs.” According to Sophie-Claire Hoeller of Business Insider, this “denied boarding compensation” can take the form of free tickets or vouchers for future flights, cash, or checks. Most experts advise travelers to insist on checks or cash, as they are more versatile than vouchers.

Denied boarding compensation amounts vary based on the degree of inconvenience caused to the passenger. Airlines are not required to pay anything to travelers who are rebooked on flights that cause them to be delayed by less than an hour (or for rebookings caused by inclement weather or mechanical issues). For delays of 1-2 hours for domestic and 1-4 hours international, the airlines must pay out 200% of the one-way ticket cost (up to $650) to the inconvenienced travelers. If the delay exceeds two hours domestic or four hours international, or if the airline doesn’t rebook the passenger at all, he or she is entitled to 400% of the one-way ticket cost (up to $1350).

Passengers who paid for their tickets with rewards points or other non-monetary currency are entitled to less compensation, and airlines can avoid paying for involuntarily bumping passengers in some circumstances. If there are safety concerns with the weight limit, balance of the plane, or adverse weather conditions, they do not have to compensate passengers removed due to those issues. If they must downsize from a larger plane to a smaller one, they also don’t have to pay passengers displaced as a result. International flights going to the United States don’t have to follow the previously mentioned rules (although some carriers might in the interest of good customer service). So, there are some situations where travelers may be out of luck!

Flexible plans? Consider volunteering: If it’s not absolutely necessary that you arrive at your destination on a certain day, consider volunteering to take a later flight—and reaping the benefits of the incentives offered. If your plans are flexible, inform the gate agent when you arrive that you might be willing to take a later flight if yours is oversold (and you are compensated, of course). In fact, there are some people who actively try to get bumped from flights so that they can gain flight credits and other rewards, which they then parlay into more travel! Obviously, this strategy works best for those who are retired or set their own hours, travel alone (or with just one other person), and don’t have pets or plants that need attention at home.

Take out travel insurance: If your flight is critical, consider travel insurance, which can be bought online while you are purchasing tickets or checking in for as little as $30. The first time we secured the coverage, it reimbursed us $1000 for an iPhone stolen while we were waiting in an airline lounge. Depending on the provider and plan, you can also obtain insurance for medical coverage, missed flights, and in some cases, when you miss your connection for a cruise. However, be sure to read the fine print before buying!

File a formal complaint: If you are bumped from a flight and are unable to reach a solution with the gate agent, you can ask to speak with a supervisor (Delta supervisors wear red coats). However, try to be nice and polite. Tell them what happened and explain what type of compensation you desire. If the supervisor does not solve your problem, visit the airline’s website and file a complaint. On a recent trip, our flights were cancelled several times, causing us to miss our connection. We filed a detailed, professionally worded complaint to support our request for 50,000 SkyMiles, and this compensation was approved. Had we not submitted a formal claim, we would never have received this great customer service!

The bottom line: Although it seems unfair, airlines routinely overbook their flights in an attempt to squeeze the most money possible out of each journey. However, airlines are a for-profit business, and you can’t blame them for trying to make money! Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to ticketholders being involuntarily removed from flights. Use our recommendations to book your flights in a way that will minimize your risk of being one such person, and if you do end up being bumped, make sure that the airline makes it worth your while!

About the Authors: Together, we have logged more than 2 million flight miles over the world in the last 40 years. Our corporate and personal purpose is to “create opportunities to improve lives” by sharing our knowledge, research, experiences, successes, and mistakes. You can e-mail us at katie@dubosegroup.com.

Mike DuBose received his graduate degree from the University of South Carolina and is the author of The Art of Building a Great Business. He has been in business since 1981 and is the owner of Research Associates, The Evaluation Group, Columbia Conference Center, and DuBose Fitness Center. Visit his nonprofit website www.mikedubose.com for a free copy of his book and additional business, travel, and personal articles, as well as health articles written with Dr. Surb Guram, MD.

Debra DuBose has been married to Mike for 45 years and co-writes articles with him. She holds bachelors and graduate degrees from Winthrop University and Francis Marion University.

Blake DuBose graduated from Newberry College’s Schools of Business and Psychology and is president of DuBose Web Group (www.duboseweb.com).

Katie Beck serves as Director of Communications for the DuBose family of companies. She graduated from the USC School of Journalism and Honors College.

© Copyright 2017 by Mike DuBose—All Rights Reserved. You have permission and we encourage you to forward the full article to friends or colleagues and/or distribute it as part of personal or professional use, providing that the authors are credited. However, no part of this article may be altered or published in any other manner without the written consent of the authors. If you would like written approval to post this information on an appropriate website or to publish this information, please contact Katie Beck at Katie@dubosegroup.com.

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