Airlines, like hotels, often overbook on the assumption that there will be cancellations. On the occasions when everybody who bought a ticket shows up, at least one person has to be bumped from the flight.
The airline is required to ask for volunteers to be voluntarily bumped to later flights for some form of compensation, often travel vouchers or frequent flyer miles. However, if there are not enough volunteers available, people may be involuntarily bumped from a flight even when they have a confirmed seat assignment. It does not happen very often — around one in every 10,000 passengers, according to the Department of Transportation (DOT) — but if it happens to you, the fact that it is rare is small compensation.
Understand that there is a difference between voluntary and involuntary bumping. If you agree to an involuntary bumping, you are accepting what the airline offers or whatever you can negotiate out of them. This exchange is not regulated — you are solely dependent on your negotiating skills.
Your leverage may increase as the flight gets closer to takeoff, but you only have so much time and space in which to negotiate before involuntary bumping takes place. It is worth checking each airline’s bumping policies for restrictions and limits on travel vouchers and other offers, so that you do not have to make assumptions in the heat of the negotiating moment.
In the event you are bumped involuntarily from a confirmed reservation, you must be given a written statement by the airline that outlines your rights. You are entitled to compensation outlined by DOT and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines, with a few exceptions. The flight must contain at least thirty passengers, originate in the US, and not be a charter flight. Cancelled flights and flights where the flight is switched to a lower-capacity aircraft for safety or operational purposes are also exempted.
You may also be denied compensation for not following ticketing and confirmation procedures (not checking in properly), violating boarding guidelines (such as being drunk), refusing to take a seat in a different class for no extra charge, or if there is an alternate flight that gets you to your final destination within an hour of the originally scheduled arrival time.
Assuming none of these applies, the compensation you can receive depends on the amount of time you will be delayed and the cost of your ticket.
A rebooking that puts you at your final destination between one and two hours late (four for international flights) gains you double the cost of your one-way fare to that destination, up to a maximum of $650. Beyond two hours (four for international), the compensation is four times the one-way cost, up to $1,300. You are also to be compensated for other services you paid for, such as checked bags or premium seating if you do not receive them on the replacement flight.
Airlines may offer you vouchers or alternate compensation for involuntary bumping, but you are entitled to cash and have the right to demand it. Be wary of alternate deal offers.
Prevention is the best step — you can limit your chances of being bumped by booking ahead and checking in as early as possible. (The last to confirm and/or the last to board are usually the first to go.) You are also less likely to be bumped if you have a frequent flyer or loyalty membership, and if you paid a full fare instead of a discounted one.
If you are bumped from an important flight, ask for transportation on another airline if there are seats available. If not, try to make the best of a bad situation by knowing your rights as a passenger and getting the maximum compensation possible for your inconvenience. Do not let airline personnel talk you into less than you deserve.