What are your rights if you are denied boarding?

Today’s post will be a little longer than normal, but there’s a lot to go over.  It’s easy stuff, but important to know if you are denied boarding on your flight.  If you want to read the full CFR, you can check it out here, but I’m going to summarize it below in English.

Involuntary denied boarding (IDB), also known as “bumping,” occurs when a passenger is bumped off a plane on an oversold flight.  It differs from voluntary denied boarding (VDB), where a passenger willingly gives up their seat in exchange for compensation.

Airlines routinely sell more seats than actually exist on a flight (called “overselling”), knowing that a certain percentage of travelers won’t show up.  Occasionally, though, the airline’s math is off and it is faced with a situation where too many passengers show up (Imagine that, people showing up for the flights they paid for.).  The first thing they will do is go through the list of passengers to make sure that everyone checked in on time and got to the gate on time.  If they find someone who didn’t, they can bump that passenger without compensation.  Always know when you need to be checked in and at the gate, especially on heavy travel days.  I guarantee you that they will be asking for volunteers on the day before Thanksgiving.  Don’t be a “bumpee” because you showed up at the gate five minutes late.

The next step is to ask for volunteers willing to take a later flight.  For domestic flights, airlines will generally offer $200-300 travel vouchers and more for international.

If the airlines don’t get enough volunteers, they will start choosing passengers to be bumped.  Note: make sure to have a seat assignment, even a lousy one, since those without seat assignments are often the first to get chosen.  Airlines don’t like to bump people due to the costs involved, but if they have to, they have to.  If you are the bumped passenger, know what your rights are.

On domestic flights, if the airline can get you to your first stop (or destination, if it’s a non-stop) within an hour, they owe you nothing.  Sorry.  If, however, you don’t make it to the first stop until 1-2 hours of your original schedule, you get 200% of the fare, up to $650 per person.  For connections, airlines will generally value the segment based on its distance as a percentage of the whole route (e.g., If you have a 1,000 mile flight with one stop exactly half-way in between, the value of your ticket for that segment will be 50% of the price).  And if you don’t get to that point within two hours of your scheduled arrival time, you get 400% of your ticket value, up to $1,300 per person.  Almost makes it worth it.  International flights follow a similar pattern, although the times that determine compensation are up to one hour, 1-4 hours and 4+ hours, respectively.

Okay, here’s what you must know:

  • First, simply know your rights.  Bookmark this page and have it ready if you are bumped from a flight.  You must be aware of everything you are owed, not only the cash but also the refund of your ancillary fees for the affected segments.
  • The airline must give you a check if that is what you want.  In other words, they may try to give you an airline voucher for the value of your ticket.  Too bad for them.  The law states that they have to give you cash.  Note that you are free to choose the voucher if you want, but I would only do that in a situation where the voucher they offer is significantly in excess of the cash they owe you.
  • Insist on a hotel, cab fare, meal vouchers, first class on your next trip, whatever.  Also, if you have a stopover, determine how you will get to your final destination.
  • The airline is required to ask for volunteers before bumping people.  Feel free to remind the gate agents if they forget to do so, or report them to the Department of Transportation.
  • Never, ever sign anything without your chosen compensation in hand.  The airline might tell you that it will give you miles, a voucher, etc.  That’s super, as long as it’s on top of the cash.  And if they do so and you haven’t signed a waiver, they can’t ask for the excess compensation back.
  • If the airline bumps you onto another airline, when you get home, call your original airline and ask them for ORC, which is original routing credit, or the miles that you would have gotten otherwise.


Exceptions: There are exceptions to the IDB rules, where airlines don’t have to pay the above compensation.

  • Like I mentioned above, if you don’t check in or show up on time, you become IDB #1.
  • A smaller plane is substituted for a larger plane for safety/operational reasons.  Also, for planes with fewer than 60 seats, if you are bumped for weight/balance issues.
  • You are offered a seat in a better class of service.  If you are offered a seat in a worse class of service, the airline will be required to pay you for the difference between the higher and lower class of service.  The problem is, when making that determination, the airline is free to use the most expensive coach fare or the fare on that date (not the date you made the reservation), which is likely only a few dollars less than the first class fare.  Sorry.  You could consider printing out the list of fares when you first make the reservation and hold onto it in case you are bumped, but it does not mean that the airline will credit you  with the lowest refundable fare.


Bottom line:

This is one of those occasions where a little knowledge will go a long way.  The airlines hate bumping people because they hate paying out so much in compensation.  You may get a gate agent who is stingy or ignorant of the rules, so it’s important that you know them, or at least have access to them.

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