When United Airlines dragged a screaming man from his seat last weekend, bloodying him in the process, it caused a justifiable uproar. The resulting outrage could spur a cry for additional fliers’ protections. When passengers aboard a small plane in Rochester, Minn., were held hostage for five-plus hours overnight in 2009, the incident and similar tarmac delays fueled congressional support for the Airline Passenger Bill of Rights.
Whether the current fury will spark change remains to be seen. But certainly, the practice of overbooking won’t go away soon. Airlines are profitable, in part, because they sell more seats than an airplane holds; this inoculates them against no-shows, ensures full flights and is usually managed by offering passengers travel vouchers and other compensation. Any legislative action to enhance protection for fliers could be a long time coming (and, sadly, could increase airfares). After the Rochester incident, the new law did not pass until 2012.
So, as the busy summer travel season approaches, brace yourself for overbooked flights, including the possibility of more forced (though one hopes, more peaceful) “re-accommodations.” If you want to avoid getting involuntarily bumped — or want to volunteer to give up your seat for a lucrative reward — read on.
Need to get to your destination? Pay for your ticket and arrive at the airport well ahead of your flight. Though policies vary from airline to airline, most determine whom to bump according to the cost of the ticket (bye-bye to those flying on points) or the time of check-in (so do it online, not at the airport). Also, arrive at the gate on time. Most airlines want passengers at the gate at least 15 to 30 minutes before departure; those who don’t comply may be on the wrong side of the closing airplane doors. (For more on airlines forcing people to give up their seats, go here.)
If the unavoidable happens, at least know your rights: Passengers who are involuntarily denied boarding are owed compensation. How much depends upon the length of the delay. If a rebooking gets the passenger to his or her destination one to two hours later than planned — or one to 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. Delays of more than two hours, or four hours for international flights, require a payment of four times the one-way fare, up to $1,350.
Want to volunteer your seat? If an overbooked plane has you seeing dollar signs, here are a few pointers to maximize your ka-ching. Book popular routes; evening flights are the most likely to fill. Plan ahead; check the online seating chart before you get to the airport for a sense of whether your flight might be full. If it is, let the gate agents know of your willingness and then stay nearby so you can reach the desk quickly should they call for volunteers. To keep it simple, don’t check luggage. Be mindful of the compensation — travel voucher or cash — and know whether it will work for you. Finally, be nice to gate agents, because your fate may be in their hands.
That remains true no matter who you are — a volunteer or a victim.
Send your questions or tips to Travel Editor Kerri Westenberg at email@example.com, and follow her on Twitter: @kerriwestenberg.