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The goal of the airlines is to make sure their planes fly full. To that end, they will oversell flights knowing that a certain percentage of passengers will cancel or be no-shows. But the formula doesn’t always work, and more people show up than there are seats on the plane. Here are some tips to help being bumped from your flight:
Get an advance seat assignment. Even if the airline only has a middle seat left to confirm, be sure you take it. Passengers with seat assignments are typically only bumped if they arrive late and their seat assignment is released.
If you do not have an advance seat assignment, or you want to change your seat assignment, check-in online. Most airlines allow you to check-in online within 24 hours of departure. Seat assignments that were not available at the time of ticketing may be available, including unblocked frequent flyer seats and seat assignments of flyers upgraded to first class. Most airlines automatically upgrade premium flyers within 24-72 hours of departure; at which point their coach seat assignments may be released for pre-assignment.
If all else fails, get to the airport early. Some airlines reserve a portion of their seat assignment inventory for airport check-in. Also, make sure your name is placed on the “standby” seat assignment list. While your ticket may say “confirmed”, you will be treated by the airline as a “standby” customer. Seats that are held by no-show passengers or passengers that upgrade at check-in to first class are distributed to standby passengers in check-in order.
If you are faced with being bumped, the following tips are for travelers faced with being involuntarily bumped or to those who may consider accepting a voucher to take another flight.
Know the lingo
The confusion regarding compensation centers on the differences between “voluntary” bumping and “involuntary” bumping.
Voluntary bumping occurs when a passenger with a confirmed seat assignment agrees to give up his seat for negotiated compensation. This compensation is not regulated by the DOT: The airlines give employees guidelines for bargaining with passengers, and they may select those volunteers willing to sell back their reservations for the lowest price. As a result, it is important that consumers ask the right questions before agreeing to give up their seats in exchange for a free ticket or voucher.
Involuntary bumping occurs when an airline forces a paid passenger from boarding a flight because it has oversold a flight. The DOT regulates compensation for involuntary bumping.
Know what questions to ask
If you volunteer to give up your seat in response to an airline offer of a free ticket, it is important passengers ask about restrictions. Suggested questions include:
“Is there an expiration date by when I must use the ticket?”
“Are there any ‘blackout dates,’ such as holidays, when I can’t use the ticket?”
“Can it be used for international flights?”
“Can I make a reservation using the voucher, and if so, how far in advance can I make it?”
Know your rights for involuntary bumping
If you are involuntarily denied boarding, and substitute transportation is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after your original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay you an amount equal to your one-way fare to your final destination, with a $200 maximum.
If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles (200 percent of your fare, $400 maximum). The Aviation Consumer Protection Division has a more detailed explantion of your rights in Fly-Rights: A Consumer Guide to Air Travel.
Of course, the most effective way to reduce the risk of being bumped involuntarily is to get to the airport early.