When Irfan Baig checked in for a flight from Memphis to Chicago a full 90 minutes before departure, he had no idea it was going to be such a bumpy flight -- or that he'd never get airborne.
In addition to having checked in well ahead of flight time, Baig had a confirmed seat assignment and was actually sitting in his seat when an American Airlines employee appeared and chose three passengers to boot off the plane. "When I inquired why I was picked out of the 100-plus passenger list, I was told I was one of the last to check in," the Seattle-based software engineer recalls. "Really? Ninety minutes ahead?" Worse still, American only gave him a $250 travel voucher, when he was entitled to a cash payment.
Oh, airlines. But there's some good news about the airlines' policies concerning involuntary denied boarding (IDB to airline geeks, getting bumped to you and me).
First, the compensation for being bumped has gone up. On domestic US flights, passengers can now collect up to 400% of the applicable one-way fare or a maximum of $1,300, boosted from $800 previously, for being bumped from a domestic flight if they arrive at their destination more than two hours later than scheduled -- or as much as $650 (or 200% of the one-way fare), up from $400, if they get to their destination within one to two hours of the scheduled time, under new Department of Transportation rules revised earlier this year. (The same compensation levels apply to international flights, but the delay must be between one and hour hours for the lower tier, or over four hours for the higher).
Second, it rarely happens. The rate of involuntary bumping was 1.09 per 10,000 passengers in 2010, down from 1.23 in the same period of 2009, according to DOT statistics.
But there's bad news too: it does happen. And when it does, with flights jam packed thanks to capacity cuts and industry consolidation, there's often not much the airline can do to get you to your meeting or your uncle's funeral on time or to the cruise ship that's going to sale off to the Amazon without you.
But before you resign yourself to a spot on the airport floor, Airfarewatchdog.com offers this advice:
Who gets bumped
It's usually the last person to check in and/or board, but many other factors play a part. Elite tier members of an airline's frequent flyer program are typically less likely to be bumped. And the folks in the cheap seats have lower priority on some airlines than the ones who paid full fare. So if you're a very frequent flyer at the highest tier of your airline's program and/or paid a full fare (or are a business or first class passenger) you're more likely to get on board than the poor chap who paid next to nothing for his coach ticket. (Interestingly, Irfan Baig had no status in American's Aadvantage program when he was unceremoniously ejected from his seat.) Also, if the airline won't issue you a seat assignment when you buy your ticket, then that's sometimes a red flag.
Take the cash
Passengers should insist on a check instead of a travel voucher (a free round-trip flight for example), which many airlines typically offer, since vouchers come with restrictions and can be difficult to redeem (you sometimes can only cash them in at the airport). If your ticket does not show a fare (for example, a frequent-flyer award ticket or a ticket issued by a consolidator), your denied boarding compensation is based on the lowest cash, check or credit card payment charged for a ticket in the same class of service (e.g. coach, first class) on that flight. And if you're bumped but arrive at your destination within an hour of the original time, there's no compensation owed.
What to do if you're bumped
Most bumpees (whether voluntary or involuntary) have to wait until the original flight is closed out before the agent can assist you. Often, a seat may open up at the last minute if someone does not board. Also, it's usually only the gate agent at the airport who can handle the booking for the next flight and issue compensation. Calling the airline's toll-free number will not get you anywhere. If the gate agent instructs you to go to a customer service counter to be rebooked and/or receive compensation, then you can try calling the airline for assistance, but compensation is almost always issued at the airport by the agent who handled the flight. And if you absolutely, positively have to get there, you could try this: make your own announcement in the boarding area offering to pay a fellow passenger compensation (in addition to whatever the airline is offering) to give up a seat. Obviously, you need to have a lot of cash in your pocket to make this work, but it's worth a try if you're desperate. And you should also ask to be put on another airline's flight, if there is one, to where you were headed, if the airline has a Rule 240 in its contract of carriage.
How not to get bumped
One way to avoid getting bumped altogether is to fly jetBlue Airways, whenever possible, since the New York-based carrier avoids overbooking and consequently has the best bumping record among all major US carriers: Just 20 jetBlue passengers were IDB'd in the first nine months of this year out of 19,677,001 flown; now if they could only work on those tarmac delays. The IDB rankings change quite often, but you can find these and other information on the DOT website. Also, avoid peak travel days (Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday are better) and seasons (the day before Thanksgiving and the Christmas holiday periods are notorious for being bump-prone) when planes tend to be jammed full.
Of course, the easiest thing you can do is book way ahead and arrive early. Way early. Check in for your flight online 24 hours before departure. Don't buy a ticket if there are no assigned seats available. And be loyal: attain some status in your airline's frequent flyer program and you're less likely to be ill-treated.
Further reading: Why airlines overbook and exceptions to the rules.