At this point, there are probably few that haven't heard of the United Airlines incident in which officials forcibly dragged a passenger off an over-booked plane that was ready to depart. United's CEO even managed to make the incident even worse with a "non-apology."

And you already thought airline travel was unpleasant.

What if you were faced with the possibility of being bumped from a flight because of overbooking? It might work out to your detriment -- a carrier can keep you from taking your scheduled flight in such circumstances. What you need is knowledge of restrictions and rights and a negotiation strategy.

Realities of overbooking

Airlines frequently overbook flights because they know from experience that some passengers will cancel their flight, miss the flight because of a delay, or change their plans at the last minute. The carriers are using a hedging strategy. Often things work out fine, but there are times they don't. In the most recent figures (October 2016) from the Department of Transportation, approximately 7 out of every 1,000 passengers were denied boarding, so there's roughly 0.7 percent of a chance that you won't catch that flight.

There are two ways an airline can bump a passenger when overbooked: voluntary (you agree to delay your travel plans) and involuntary (an airline can force you to wait). The vast majority of people denied boarding volunteers to be left off. In October 2016, the number of voluntary was 106,723, while involuntary ran 8,955, or roughly 12 to 1. In October 2015, that ratio was about 10.5 to one.

Get ready to negotiate

The minute you hear that the airline is looking for volunteers to delay their travel, you know that one or more persons will be denied boarding. This is when you need to immediately make some decisions, as you have the most negotiation advantage.

There is a significant difference in what airlines can and might do for voluntary and involuntary bumping. The latter comes under specific federal rules:

  • If the airline arranges substitute transportation and you will arrive at your final destination or, on a multi-stop trip, your first stop within an hour of the originally scheduled time, the airline doesn't have to compensate you.
  • If substitute transportation results in a scheduled delay more than an hour but less than two, the airline must pay you twice the one-way fare to the final destination, with a maximum of $675.
  • If the delay will be two hours or more, the airline must pay you four times the one-way fare to the final destination, with a maximum of $1,350.

To get these benefits, you need a confirmed reservation (standby status won't do) and must appear at the gate within the check-in deadline.

Even then, an airline doesn't even have to promise you a hotel room for the night if your new flight doesn't leave until the next day. "You face that a lot of times if flights have been canceled for a mechanical reason or weather reason" and not overbooking, said William Angelley, an aviation attorney and partner with Dallas-based law firm Braden Varner & Angelley. "A lot of times they won't offer hotel rooms or accommodations."

As Angelley notes, because regulations may set out what airlines have to pay, they effectively protect them from being sued for more. That leaves the carrier in a strong position, able to refuse your boarding so long as it provides federally mandated compensation. That is why you want to look carefully at voluntary bumping.

Control the negotiation

Given the state of an involuntary bump, your best chance at negotiation happens when the airline first asks for volunteers. You know the worst case: you don't get to board and you have a pre-determined sum of money for your inconvenience, which at worst might have to cover food and a hotel room. That leaves you with the following questions to determine your needs:

  1. Is your arrival time critical and, if so, how critical? If you look to make a connecting flight, even a short disruption could be a problem. Or you might have a business meeting the next morning, in which case even an arrival late in the evening might be good enough.
  2. How much money have they offered?
  3. How long will you need to wait for the next flight and will you need a hotel and meals?
  4. If they also offer a free ticket in addition, what limitations are there on its usage? Ask if there are black-out dates and if it could be used on an international flight.

Assume that the first public announcement is an opening hand. Ask questions to understand all the details and then provide a counter-offer. Perhaps you want more money, a better room, transportation to and from the hotel, or an extra ticket without restrictions. Or say that you really do need to get in earlier if at all possible -- talk to the gate agents, note your concern, and see if there's anything they can do.

A few other points. If the airline has to move to a smaller craft than the one originally planned, it's not considered overbooking and they owe you nothing. Planes with 30 to 60 seats may not qualify if being bumped is due to safety-related issues, like rebalancing weight within the plane. None of this applies to aircraft with fewer than 30 passengers or to chartered flights, or if you fly between two foreign cities. Also, if you're bumped and it costs you more than the airline pays, hold onto the check and see if you can renegotiate with the carrier's complaint department or file suit within 30 days.