Disturbing video of a passenger being forcibly removed from his seat on an overbooked United Airlines flight on Sunday has a lot of people asking questions about overbooking and “involuntary bumping.” How common is it to get bumped off a flight? It turns out that tens of thousands of people get involuntarily bumped from flights every year — and, unfortunately, there’s not a lot you can do about it.
Airline overbooking is legal in the United States, and many airlines overbook as a matter of course, in order to make sure that all seats on a flight are filled, regardless of any “no shows.” Passengers agree to overbooking — and therefore the possibility of being bumped, voluntarily or involuntarily — when they book their flights. For example, United’s “Contract of Carriage,” which all passengers agree to, states, “All of UA’s flights are subject to overbooking which could result in UA’s inability to provide previously confirmed reserved space for a given flight.”
According to ABC News, U.S. airlines involuntarily bumped about 40,000 passengers in 2016; 3,765 of those non-volunteers were United customers. Those numbers don’t include the 434,000 passengers from the U.S.’s 12 largest airlines who volunteered to give up their seats due to overbooked flights.
In the case of an overbooked flight, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) requires that airlines first seek out passengers to volunteer to leave their seats in exchange for some form of compensation. Often this compensation takes the form of vouchers for future flights, but passengers can also receive hotel accommodations, food vouchers, and other perks. If your travel plans are flexible, volunteering to give up your seat for compensation can be a good deal — and the 63,000 passengers who volunteered to be bumped from their United flights last year apparently agreed.
However, when no passengers volunteer to leave their seats on an overbooked flight, airlines are then allowed to bump people involuntarily. DOT is very specific as to the compensation owed these passengers:
- If an airline bumps you, but it is able to get you to your destination within an hour of when you were initially supposed to arrive, the airline does not have to compensate you.
- If the airline bumps you and gets you to your destination within 1 to 2 hours of when you were supposed to arrive (or within 1 to 4 hours if you’re flying internationally), it owes you compensation equal to double the amount you spent for your one-way flight, up to $675.
- If the airline bumps you and doesn’t get you to your destination until 2 hours or more after you were supposed to arrive (or 4 hours for an international flight), the airline owes you 400 percent of the cost of your one-way flight, up to $1350.
- If you bought extras for your flight — like seat selection, extra leg room, or checked baggage — the airline either needs to proved those services on your rescheduled flight or refund the cost of those services.
Each airline has its own procedures for choosing whom to bump. United Airlines states in its Contract of Carriage that, when selecting passengers to bump, it will choose people with disabilities and unaccompanied minors last. Although every airline has its own method for selecting passengers, the Department of Transportation recommends getting to the airport early to avoid losing your seat, as some airlines choose passengers according to who checked in last. Airlines also tend to bump passengers with the lowest fares, in order to pay lower compensation costs.