Who is typically bumped from an overbooked flight?

Travel Destinations

By Kristy Tolley

Understanding Overbooking Policies

Overbooking is a common practice among airlines to compensate for no-shows and last-minute cancellations. Airlines often sell more tickets than the available seats on a flight, expecting that a certain percentage of passengers will not turn up. However, when everyone shows up, overbooking can lead to a situation where some passengers are "bumped" from the flight, even if they have confirmed reservations. Understandably, this can be a frustrating experience for travelers who have planned their trip and booked their tickets well in advance.

Passengers’ Rights in Overbooking Situations

When an airline overbooks a flight, it must first ask for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for compensation, such as vouchers, cash or air miles. If there are not enough volunteers, the airline may involuntarily deny boarding to some passengers, also known as "bumping." However, there are rules and regulations that protect passengers’ rights in such situations. For instance, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) requires airlines to provide a written statement explaining the passenger’s rights and the airline’s obligations in case of overbooking. In addition, the DOT mandates that passengers who are involuntarily bumped from a flight must be compensated, depending on the length of the delay and the price of their ticket.

Factors That Determine Bumping Priority

When airlines need to bump passengers from a flight, they use a set of criteria to determine which passengers will be affected. These criteria can vary depending on the airline’s policies, the route, and the flight’s load factor. Typically, passengers are bumped based on their check-in time, fare class, frequent flyer status, group booking, seat assignment, and other factors such as special needs, missed connections, and standby status. In general, passengers who have paid the lowest fare and do not have a loyalty status with the airline are more likely to be bumped than those who have paid a premium fare or are members of the airline’s frequent flyer program.

The Law: Who Can Airlines Bump?

Airlines are not allowed to bump passengers based on their race, ethnicity, gender, or disability. The DOT also prohibits airlines from bumping passengers who have a confirmed reservation, unless there is a safety or security issue, or the passenger has violated the airline’s rules, such as not following the dress code or being intoxicated. Furthermore, airlines cannot bump passengers who are already on board the plane, except in case of an emergency. In general, airlines have a lot of discretion when it comes to bumping passengers, but they must follow the regulations and guidelines set by the DOT and other regulatory bodies.

First-Class, Business-Class, or Economy-Class?

When it comes to bumping passengers, airlines usually prioritize passengers based on their class of service. In other words, passengers in first-class or business-class are less likely to be bumped than those in economy class. This is because first-class and business-class passengers have paid a premium fare and are often members of the airline’s loyalty program. Moreover, airlines are more likely to bump passengers who have booked their ticket through a third-party website or travel agent, rather than directly with the airline. This is because third-party bookings often have lower fares and less flexibility.

Frequent Fliers and Loyalty Programs

Frequent flyer programs can also play a role in bumping passengers. Airlines often prioritize their most loyal customers, such as those who have achieved elite status or have accumulated a large number of miles. These passengers are less likely to be bumped than those who do not have a loyalty status with the airline. In addition, airlines may offer incentives to their frequent fliers to volunteer to give up their seats in case of overbooking, such as bonus miles or upgrades.

Group Bookings and Seat Assignments

Passengers who have booked as part of a group are more likely to be bumped than those who have booked individually. This is because airlines prefer to keep families, couples, or friends together on a flight. Moreover, passengers who have not selected a seat in advance or have chosen a seat with an extra legroom or other amenities may also be more vulnerable to bumping. This is because the airline may need to reassign seats to accommodate passengers who were bumped from their original flight.

Late Check-Ins and Missed Connections

Passengers who check in late or miss their connecting flight may also be at risk of being bumped. This is because airlines may assume that these passengers are less likely to show up on time for their next flight, thus freeing up their seat for another passenger. However, if the delay or the missed connection is due to the airline’s fault, such as a delay or cancellation, the airline may be responsible for compensating the passenger for any inconvenience or expenses.

Ticket Class and Fare Type

The fare class and the type of ticket can also affect a passenger’s chances of being bumped. Passengers who have purchased a refundable ticket or have paid a higher fare are less likely to be bumped than those who have purchased a non-refundable or discounted ticket. This is because the airline has more flexibility to rebook or refund the ticket in case of overbooking. In addition, passengers who have purchased a ticket with a code-share partner or through a travel agency may also be more vulnerable to bumping.

Passengers with Disabilities or Special Needs

Passengers with disabilities or special needs are protected by the DOT’s regulations and cannot be bumped based on their condition. Moreover, airlines are required to provide assistance and accommodations to these passengers, such as wheelchair service, special seating arrangements, or medical equipment. However, passengers with disabilities or special needs may be asked to volunteer to give up their seats if they are able to travel on a later flight or if their needs can be accommodated on another flight.

Standby Passengers and Non-Revenue Passengers

Standby passengers and non-revenue passengers, such as airline employees or their family members, are usually the first to be bumped from a flight. This is because these passengers do not have a confirmed reservation and are traveling on a space-available basis. However, standby passengers who have paid a fee for their standby status or have a high priority due to their loyalty status may be less likely to be bumped than those who are traveling for free.

Conclusion: What to Do When You Get Bumped.

If you are bumped from a flight, the first thing to do is to stay calm and inquire about your options. You may be able to negotiate a better compensation with the airline, such as a higher voucher or cash amount. Moreover, you may be able to get a seat on a later flight or another airline, depending on the availability. If you are involuntarily bumped, make sure to ask for a written statement of your rights and the airline’s obligations. In addition, keep all your receipts and documentation, as you may be able to claim additional compensation for any expenses incurred. Finally, if you feel that your rights have been violated, you may file a complaint with the DOT or seek legal advice.

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Kristy Tolley

Kristy Tolley, an accomplished editor at TravelAsker, boasts a rich background in travel content creation. Before TravelAsker, she led editorial efforts at Red Ventures Puerto Rico, shaping content for Platea English. Kristy's extensive two-decade career spans writing and editing travel topics, from destinations to road trips. Her passion for travel and storytelling inspire readers to embark on their own journeys.

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