If Your Flight Is Overbooked, Here's What You Should Know About Your Rights

Photo: Getty Images.
Finding yourself on an overbooked flight is not an uncommon experience. What's less common is the epic screw-up the world witnessed on Sunday night, when a Facebook user shared a clip of a man being forcibly removed, kicking and screaming, from his United flight and then dragged off the plane at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. (If you need a refresher, please watch the video in this article. Many people got upset that this happened for a very good reason.)
United Airlines has since released a statement that many criticized as being insensitive to the situation. Now, the airline is saying it didn't even overbook the flight — it selected four passengers at random to accommodate crew members it would need at its destination.
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This story has led us to wonder what we would do in a situation like this. What rights do we have as passengers? Here are the answers to some most commonly asked questions.
Is what happened even legal?
This is tricky. Some say that while horrifying, what happened was not unlawful. "The captain is in charge of the aircraft," Simon Calder, the publication's travel correspondent, explained to The Independent. "And if he or she decides that someone needs to be offloaded, that command has to be obeyed. From the moment that the unfortunate individual in this case said, 'I’m staying put,' he became a disruptive passenger. He was disobeying the captain’s command." However, this comes into question when you consider that Dr. David Dao was not simply "denied boarding"; this case looks like it may have been a "refusal of transport," for which United indeed had no legal grounds. Either way, United made a big mistake in allowing all the passengers to board before resolving the issue.
How do airlines normally get passengers to take other flights when planes are overbooked?
Most airlines regularly sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane, according to Money magazine. When a flight is overbooked, the airline usually starts by offering passengers who volunteer to take another flight a few hundred dollars in flight credits, as well as possibly food vouchers or hotel stays. If not enough people volunteer, it might up the offer — and then it may resort to picking people at random. And that's when, if you refuse to cooperate, you could be prevented from boarding against your will.
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Normally, the airline's staff is understanding if you have to be somewhere, writes Calder. "If someone is going to a wedding or funeral, or they have a job interview, or they’re a surgeon due to operate the next day, they will be prioritized. Someone without so pressing a schedule, such as a travel journalist, will be selected instead."
Which airlines are the most likely to be overbooked?
According to Money, a study by MileCards.com found that Delta and United are most likely to be overbooked. For every 10,000 passengers, these two offer compensation to 10 and 7.2 volunteers, respectively, while JetBlue only tries to bump .5 people. The average is 6.6.
Okay, so what happens if no one voluntarily gives up their reservation?
American Airlines makes this determination based on who checked in last, but also uses factors such as how much the passenger paid in airfare and whether they are in the airline's loyalty program, according to Money. In other words, the cheap seats tend to get the short end of the stick.
Don't I have rights?!
According to U.S. Department of Transportation regulations, anyone who gets bumped from a flight must be compensated. If your new flight gets you to your destination within one to two hours of the time you were originally scheduled to arrive, the airline is required to pay you 200% of the price of the one-way fare (up to a max of $675). If you're delayed from getting to your final destination by more than two hours within the U.S. (four hours if your flight is international), it has to pay 400% of the fare (up to $1,350). If you're booked on another flight and still arrive within an hour of your originally scheduled time, sorry, but no money for you.
Can I ask for more extra stuff?
Yes! "It's always worth asking for larger airfare credits, later expiration dates, or even more food vouchers...by all means haggle hard if your flight plans are going to be ruined," according to Money. It never hurts to ask for more — after all, you're the one being inconvenienced.
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