What To Do If Your Flight Is Oversold

Dec 12, 2014

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The airline industry has an inherent degree of unpredictability. While airlines do a mostly good job scheduling flights and filling them with passengers, things inevitably go wrong. Today, TPG Senior Points and Miles Correspondent Jason Steele looks at one of the more common problems in commercial aviation, and explains what to do when you have a ticket, but have no seat.

Over the past decade, airlines have been able to increase their average load factors, which is the percentage of seats occupied. One of the tricks airlines use to make sure flights are full is to oversell them, which is simply a bet that some passengers will fail to show up, whether due to a delayed connecting flight or just a change of plans.

Most of the time, all of these factors average out and everyone is accommodated, but a significant number of flights end up with more passengers waiting at the gate then there are seats. If this happens with your flight, what should you do? The answer depends on what you’re looking for:

Getting bumped from your flight doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

If you’re looking to earn compensation for being voluntarily bumped

There are all sorts of tips and tricks people employ to get bumped from a flight, including purposely booking flights that are likely to be overbooked. These include using ExpertFlyer or some other source of information to look at ticket availability, or just observing that specific flights regularly tend to be overbooked. For the purpose of this discussion, however, let’s just assume that your ticket is already booked, and now you want to cash in by taking a later flight.

Before airlines can bump anyone from a flight, they must solicit volunteers by offering them compensation. Some airlines will even make passengers offers upon check-in. In most cases, the offers will be for a specific amount, typically in the form of a travel voucher. So if your intention is to receive this compensation and take a later flight, it makes sense to check-in online as early as possible. The exception is with Delta, which has instituted a sort of reverse silent auction, where passengers bid on the amount of compensation they will accept to volunteer. While you can bid up to $800, Delta only accepts the lowest bids, so a maximum bid is unlikely to succeed.

In addition to online check-in, voluntary denied boarding compensation may be offered at at the check-in kiosk or at the gate. To increase your chances of getting it, you you may be able to volunteer at both locations. Get to the kiosk early, and if that doesn’t work, get to the gate about an hour before the scheduled departure time, and try to be the first person waiting for the gate agent to arrive. Politely ask if volunteers are needed; the gate agent will no doubt catch your drift. If the flight is indeed oversold and volunteers are needed, you should then inquire about the compensation being offered, which is usually in the form of airline vouchers. If their offer is too low, you can always decline.

If you volunteer to give up your seat, have alternate flight or routing options in mind ahead of time.

If you accept the airline’s offer, the gate agents will typically reroute bumped passengers only after the flight has boarded. Be prepared to offer your ideal alternate routing options in the event that you’re voluntarily bumped, although most airlines are unlikely to offer you flights on other carriers. That said, this is a great time to reschedule your trip, as passengers being accommodated can choose from available flights. So if you’re bumped from your flight back from Hawaii, you could choose to stay another day or two rather than take the next available flight.

Also, there’s no reason you can’t get bumped multiple times. Once when I accepted a bump, I heard one gate agent informing another that my rescheduled flight was also overbooked. Sure enough, that flight was also accepting volunteers, so you may be able to parlay one bump and a day at the airport into hundreds of dollars worth of denied boarding vouchers.

Finally, you may be accommodated in premium economy or even first class if the seats are available and you ask nicely.

You’re more likely to get bumped in lower fare classes. Involuntary Denial of Boarding is soooo Economy.

If you must get to your destination and are unwilling to consider an alternate flight:

Sometimes you don’t want to be bumped no matter what the compensation is, but it happens anyway. This is called involuntary denied boarding, or IDB. While it might seem like you have to be pretty unlucky to be selected for IDB, it turns out that being selected isn’t that difficult, especially if you fail to reserve a seat in advance and only check in when you arrive at the airport. If you do that when flying on a heavily discounted ticket, you’ll be a likely candidate.

The first step to avoid the IDB is to get a seat assignment as soon as you purchase a ticket. Of course, in most cases you’ll want to do this anyway to get the best seat. If no seat assignment is available at the time of purchase, that’s a strong indicator that the flight is oversold.

The next step to avoid the IDB is to check in online the day before your flight. Airlines designate passengers for IDB first based on their fare class, and then based on check-in time. Checking in early is a good practice for other reasons, as you may be able to improve your seat assignment if additional seats are released. Of course, if you receive an offer to voluntarily change your ticket, then it’s a safe bet that the flight is oversold, at least at that time.

If you aren’t given a seat assignment at booking or check-in, show up early and talk with the gate agent.

If you’re unable to select a seat assignment at check-in, then it’s even more likely that your flight is oversold, so be extra careful to arrive at the gate in advance and present yourself to the gate agents. This is important because involuntary denied boarding only applies when passengers have been fully checked in (including baggage) and are at the gate at a specified time, typically 30 minutes before scheduled departure. Failing to comply with those rules means that the airline can actually give away your seat and claim that it was your fault for missing your flight, even as you try to board with other passengers.

I have read numerous threads on Flyertalk where passengers without a seat assignment showed up at the gate during boarding only to find that they had been bumped. Many claim that gate agents were quick to give away their seats right at the cutoff time, or even a few minutes earlier! That’s why you must be at the gate area before the cut-off time when a flight is oversold, and you should always present yourself to the gate agents well in advance of the cut-off time if you don’t have a seat assignment. Otherwise your claim on a seat can disappear quickly.

Cash back cards can be an important element of your rewards strategy. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
If you are involuntarily denied boarding, you can request cash compensation. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

If you are selected for IDB, the airline must have requested volunteers before bumping you from the flight. If they haven’t, you might remind them of their duty to do so. In addition, many airlines have exceptions for passenger with extenuating circumstances, such as minors traveling alone or those making connections.

If all else fails and you’re still bumped against your will, the news isn’t all bad. You can receive up to four times the price of your ticket, up to a maximum of $1,300 in cash if you arrive at your destination more than four hours after you were scheduled. You may be offered vouchers, but you can insist on your right to receive cash payments. This is also a great time to request additional schedule changes at no charge, and perhaps an upgrade to premium economy or even a higher class of service.

There are exceptions for when the aircraft has fewer than 60 seats, an aircraft substitution has been made, or when the airline is able to get you to your destination within one hour of your previously scheduled arrival. If you have trouble getting compensation that you feel you’re due, consider filing a DOT complaint and you may have better results.

Do you loathe being bumped, or do you look for opportunities?

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