With travel demand still high, more and more passengers are finding themselves bumped from the flights they paid for.
A recent analysis by The Wall Street Journal found that more than twice as many passengers were involuntarily denied boarding between October 2021 and September 2022 compared to the same period a year prior. Even accounting for the fact that some peak pandemic months were included in that period, the Journal pointed out that almost 24% more passengers were bumped than the period beginning October 2018.
“There are fewer flights into lots of markets, and the airlines are less certain about demand,” Paul Tumpowsky, founder and CEO of travel agency Skylark told USA TODAY. “It shouldn’t surprise people that that volatility leads to underselling and overselling lots of flights because they’re less sure of what demand looks like in a lot of markets.”
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Unfortunately for travelers, airlines are generally at liberty to deny you boarding if your flight is oversold. But on the bright side, if it happens to you, you may be entitled to compensation in many circumstances. Here’s what you need to know.
Why are airlines bumping more passengers?
As Tumpowsky said, it’s all about supply and demand, and airlines are having a more difficult time predicting that demand because travel’s recovery from the pandemic has not been even.
Patterns are changing among travelers, especially thanks to remote work possibilities, and airlines are still largely relying on pre-pandemic data to make their travel forecasts.
“Pre-COVID data that used to be used by the revenue management team makes it very very difficult to forecast,” Tumpowsky said. “Lots of flights become fuller to the point that they’re oversold.”
It’s common for airlines to sell more tickets for a flight than a plane can sit because a certain number of passengers typically cancel at the last minute or don’t show up for their flight. However, with travel patterns changing, those statistics are less predictable for airlines than they used to be.
What am I entitled to if I get bumped from a flight?
In many cases, according to the Department of Transportation, you’re entitled to compensation if an airline bumps you from a flight you’ve paid for.
For domestic flights in the U.S., airlines have to pay you 200% of the value of your one-way ticket up to $775 if you arrive at your destination one to two hours past your originally scheduled itinerary, or 400% of the one-way ticket price, up to $1,550 if your arrival delay is longer than two hours.
For international flights departing the U.S., the 200% or $775 compensation window is up to four hours, with 400% up to $1,550 compensation owed for a delay of more than four hours.
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Airlines often negotiate with passengers at the gate to get volunteers to take a later flight when a particular service is oversold, and sometimes that compensation can far exceed DOT mandates.
There are some big carveouts, however, under which airlines are not required to compensate you even if you are denied boarding against your will, which include aircraft changes, weight and balance issues, flights to the U.S. departing from other countries and others.
The DOT also notes that passengers may be entitled to a partial refund if they paid for a seat in a higher class of service and are downgraded before departure.
Check out the DOT website for more information.
How can I prevent myself from getting bumped from a flight?
According to Tumpowsky, there are a few steps you can take to make it less likely that you’ll be bumped.
“Have a frequent flyer number for the airline. Do not book basic tickets that do not have seat assignments. Always take a seat assignment if you can get one, even if you do not love it,” he said, and added that if you fly enough to earn status with an airline, it makes sense to concentrate on one carrier because elite loyalty members are less likely to get bumped.
He also said he finds that having a paper boarding pass can help, because digital boarding passes are easier for the airline to change without you noticing.
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And above all, Tumpowsky said, it’s important to remain civil even if you’re going through a frustrating travel experience.
“When stress levels get high, you have to remember to be a good traveler and be a good citizen,” he said. Not doing so “can get you removed from the flight and the penalties for you are much worse than for the airline. … You don’t want to make it onto a no fly list, certainly not over a broken TV.”
Were you bumped from your flight or did you volunteer to take a voucher? How was that experience?