Whether you're traveling to attend a conference to nurture existing and new relationships or are meeting with clients important to your company's bottom line, business travel can get stressful. Unfortunately, before you even get to your destination, you might run into problems that you certainly weren't anticipating or prepared for. One of these issues may be an overbooked flight.
An overbooked flight is when airlines strategically determine how many no-shows a certain flight will have, then sell last-minute tickets to accommodate for them. The problem is when everyone shows up, passengers have to voluntarily or involuntarily get bumped.
Of course, there are benefits to getting bumped including upgrades or vouchers for future flights. However, they only seem worth it when you're flexible, which most business travelers aren't. Here's a guide to commonly asked questions and what to do if your flight is overbooked.
Is this practice legal?
Although it may seem unethical to sell more seats than an airline's ability to provide, it's still legal. However, not all airlines do this. If a passenger is getting bumped, it may be for a specific purpose, such as if an Federal Air Marshall is needed.
What are my rights?
Airlines will first ask if anyone would like to give up their seat voluntarily for compensation. They are required to provide incentives to help motivate travelers to volunteer. These incentives include vouchers or cash along with scheduling the traveler for a later flight.
Passengers can negotiate with the airline and there is no limit to how many vouchers an airline can offer. However, the airline must disclose any restrictions that come with the offers before the passenger agrees to give up their seat.
I recommend asking if they can confirm a seat on the next available flight, how long are the voucher(s) good for, and whether or not they will provide food and accommodations if the next available flight won't be until the next day.
If there aren't enough volunteers and you are involuntarily bumped from a flight, you will be given a written statement explaining your rights as well as how the information on how the airline decides who gets bumped. An airline may look at a person's check-in time, frequent flyer status, and the price they paid for their ticket when determining who gets bumped. If you're involuntarily bumped, ask questions.
Note that an airline isn't always required to give you compensation if you are bumped. For instance, travelers are not entitled to compensation if there is an aircraft change.
You may be compensated if you are bumped and the airline cannot get you to your destination within one hour of your flight's originally scheduled arrival time. You must also have had a confirmed reservation and been on time checking-in to your flight and to the departure gate.
How much you get compensated depends on your ticket price, how many hours you're delayed, and what airline you're flying with.
If you are scheduled on a domestic or USA originating international flight and the delay is an hour or less, you will likely not receive compensation. If you are delayed one to two hours on a domestic flight or one to four hours on an international flight, you may receive compensation equal to double the price of what you paid for the one-way fare (up to $675). If the wait is over two hours domestically and over four hours to travel internationally, you can get compensation worth four times the value you paid for the one-way part of the journey (up to $1,350).
You can read more about these specifics on DOT's website.
What should I do to avoid getting bumped?
The first way you can avoid getting bumped is by purchasing an assigned seat, even though it's cheaper to wait until you arrive at the gate to get your seat number. Not having an assigned seat leaves you vulnerable to the possibility of getting bumped.
Also check-in as soon as possible. When there are no volunteers, some airlines bump the last person to check in. You can always check in via the airline's app or website. Also, make it to your gate on time. The crew can bump someone who's late.
It's also good to be aware of which airlines you're more likely to get bumped from. Airlines such as American Eagle, Delta, and United are far more likely to bump you if your plane is overbooked. However, airlines such as Frontier and JetBlue have lower bump rates.
You also can join an airline's loyalty program, which are often free to join. Passengers who sign up for a loyalty program are usually faithful to that airline. Airlines may choose to place priority on passengers who show this level of commitment towards them. You may also consider a credit card that has travel insurance.