LAX: Getting Out : Sorry, Overbooked : Airlines may bump passengers, but there is compensation

There is nothing more frustrating than getting bumped from a flight, that is unless you are a volunteer who gets a free ticket for your trouble.

Airlines sometimes have to bump passengers because they routinely overbook their flights to ensure as many seats get filled as possible.

According to American Airlines spokesman Bill Dreslan, overbooking is necessary, in part because most people don’t cancel their reservations when they have a change in flight plans. In addition, many people make multiple reservations in order to maintain some flexibility in their travel schedules--and don’t cancel the ones they fail to use.

If the airlines didn’t compensate for these no-shows by overselling the flights, they would have to turn down paying customers before flight time, and then fly with unfilled seats.


The number of no-shows tends to be highest in leisure and resort markets, said Alaska Airlines spokesman Lou Cancelmi. “The Mexican [resort destination] markets are notorious for no-shows,” said Cancelmi, explaining that U.S. travelers cover their bets by making multiple resort reservations and, thus, multiple airline reservations. Other frequently overbooked destinations are Las Vegas and Reno, Nev., Cancelmi said.

Overbooking also is common in markets with multiple daily flights, because the airlines figure that if they have to bump you, they will be able to get you to your destination on a subsequent flight without much delay.

Southwest Airlines, for example, had the highest number of passengers who were denied boarding for the period from January to June, 1995, bumping 3.04 people per 10,000 travelers. Northwest Airlines had the lowest rate with only 0.26 denials per 10,000 passengers.

The amount of overbooking on any particular flight is based on the airline’s analysis of the pattern of no-shows in that market, said Chris Chiames, spokesman for the Air Transport Assn. of America in Washington. Because airlines have gotten more sophisticated in their collection of such data, there is less of a chance that you will be denied boarding as a result of overbooking today than there was a decade ago.

Indeed, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the number of passengers denied boarding was 1.27 per 10,000 travelers in 1994. In 1985, the rate was 5.47 denied boardings per 10,000 passengers.

The rate dropped every year from 1985 to 1992, said DOT spokesman Bill Mosley. It has been creeping up again, however. In 1992, it was 1.03 per 10,000, and in 1993, it was 1.13 per 10,000.

If it seems as though more people are getting bumped, it’s not because the airlines are doing more overbooking. It’s because more people are showing up for their flights, Cancelmi said. The popularity of low-cost tickets, many of which would be sacrificed if they weren’t used, accounts for some of the increase in denied boardings, he said.

So what are your rights if you get bumped?

There is a difference in what airlines are required to give you, depending on whether you are voluntarily or involuntarily bumped from your seat.

Whenever there are more passengers than seats available, the first thing the airline does is call for volunteers to get off the plane. In exchange for voluntarily giving up your seat, most airlines offer a free ticket, often to anywhere the airline flies. Occasionally, airlines will offer cash instead of a voucher, although free tickets are the most popular choices, said David Stempler, Washington-based aviation attorney and passenger advocate.

If not enough people volunteer to get off the plane, and the airline denies you boarding, you have been involuntarily bumped and have certain rights guaranteed by federal regulations. In the absence of enough volunteers, most airlines start involuntarily bumping passengers based on the latest arrivals at check-in.

It’s important to note, however, that you are only entitled to compensation if you have met the airline’s boarding requirements. Each airline stipulates how far in advance you must be at the gate for boarding. For some airlines it is 10 minutes. For others it is 30 minutes. As long as you are there within the prescribed time, you will receive compensation if you aren’t able to get on the flight, Stempler said. If you aren’t there in time, you’re just out of luck.

If you’ve been bumped and the airline can get you to your destination within one hour of the anticipated landing time of your original flight, it doesn’t owe you anything. If you are delayed up to two hours on domestic flights, or up to four hours on international flights, the airline is required to pay you 100% of the value of a one-way ticket to your destination, up to a maximum of $200. (In addition to the cash compensation, the airline, of course, still must honor your ticket and fly you to your destination.)

If you’re delayed any longer than that, the airline is required to pay you 200% of the value of the ticket you’re holding, up to a maximum of $400.

“Denied-boarding compensation is not the only remedy,” Stempler said. “You can still sue the airline, but you’d have to prove damages.”

Most people just take the money, he said.

And some people don’t mind getting bumped. “We have people who regularly volunteer,” Cancelmi said. “They let us know right up front when they check in.”