United we stand, if we’re overbooked you fall

Airline travel can be stressful.

You get to the airport hours before your flight, endure the security checks and then spend time trying to find a seat in the departure terminal. And you spend a small fortune on something that is alleged to be food. Then, just when you thought the worst was over, you find out you might not be going anywhere because your flight is overbooked.

Sitting at the departure lounge, you might then be wondering if the airline is allowed to oversell the flight, and if they do, what happens to you.

So we thought it would be helpful to explore the legalities of overbooking, as well as your rights and what you can expect.

Before we get to what this article is actually about, it’s worth understanding what it is notabout. In the aftermath of the two recent United Airlines cases, there was much debate in the media and on our forum about the legality of removing passengers when the airline isn’t actually overbooked, but just needs to get its employees on the plane.

As interesting as that debate was, we are going to focus on passenger rights in a true overbooking case, rather than carry on the debate about the United case.

Let’s be clear: Overbooking is a real issue. According to data from the Department of Transportation (DOT), 475,000 passengers were denied boarding in 2016 because of overbooking. The majority of those passengers were “voluntarily” denied boarding (by choosing to give up their seat on the plane when asked) and only 40,629 (9 percent) were “denied boarding involuntarily” (being forced to give up their seat.)

Now that is a lovely way of describing not being allowed to travel on the flight you have booked. Better still is the description that even the DOT uses, “bumped.” That makes it sound like it is something minor. When you can’t get to where you need to get to, when you need to get there, that is not something I consider minor.

At this point, you might be thinking that denying boarding to 475,000 passengers isn’t that bad, since World Bank data show that 32 billion passengers were carried worldwide in 2015. Don’t be fooled: that figure is only based on flights within the United States, and only for the 12 biggest U.S carriers.

By now you might have guessed that overbooking is legal — after all, if it weren’t the Department of Transportation would be taking regulatory action rather than publishing data on it.

In fact, overbooking is common practice for the majority of airlines and legal not only in the U.S. but also in the EU. There are, however, rules that airlines must abide by. Before denying boarding, both in the U.S. and in the EU, airlines should first ask if there are passengers who are willing to give up their seats.

So what compensation are you entitled to if you do choose to give up your seat? The answer is, “as much as you can negotiate” — because there aren’t any mandated compensation levels in such cases.

Before you give up your seat, however, you should consider how much time you have to wait for the next flight that the airline can get you on — and whether it is offering amenities such as hotels and free food. The Department of Transportation has a useful guide on matters to consider before you give up your flight.

If, however, you are forced to give up your seat (bumped), then your entitlement to compensation depends upon the origin and destination of your flight.

In the U.S., the amount of compensation varies depending upon how much later you will arrive at your destination. Compensation is between 200 and 400 percent of the one-way fare (depending upon the length of the delay), capped at $1,350.

The Department of Transportation’s guide, sets out the full details, including exclusions.

For EU travel (and for Switzerland, Norway and Iceland), EU 261 sets out the level of compensation that applies — whether the flight is overbooked or just delayed. The amount of compensation depends upon the reason, the length of delay and the distance of your flight.

In order to qualify, your flight must either depart from an airport in the EU on any airline, or arrive in the EU on an EU airline. The maximum compensation is 600 euros for flights of more than 3,500 km that are delayed by more than 4 hours.

EU 261 also entitles passengers to free meals and refreshments, telephone calls and, if the delay is until the next day, hotel accommodation. The Northern Ireland Government has an easy guide to your rights.

Some passengers like to play the game TO get bumped, but clearly that is not for everyone. Getting there on time might really matter. So what can you do if you are worried about being bumped? Well, you can always consider which airline you fly, and which has the worst record for bumping.

Despite United making international news, it is not the worst airline for involuntary denied boarding. That title goes to ExpressJet, which bumped 1.51 passengers per 10,000 flown. Southwest was second, with 0.99 per 10,000 passengers, followed by SkyWest with 0.98.

Strangely enough, United is far down the list, with only 0.43 passengers involuntarily bumped per 10,000 flown. Yet it and Delta had the highest number of voluntarily bumped passengers. It seems that United is usually good at persuading passengers to take a different flight.

Oh, the irony.

Should airlines be allowed to overbook?

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