Arrow-right Camera

Summertime When Airlines ‘Do The Bump’

It’s summer vacation time again, one of the seasons when airlines are most likely to “do the bump.”

No, not the 1970s dance craze. “Bumping” is the practice of forcing passengers with tickets off an overbooked flight.

While only a fraction of air travelers ever face the problem, peak travel periods such as summer and Christmas are when overbooked flights are most likely.

On average, about 50,000 passengers are involuntarily bumped by the nation’s 10 largest airlines each year, according to Department of Transportation statistics.

Airlines intentionally overbook flights because some passengers with reservations - usually business people - won’t show up. But when everyone does show up, something has to give. There are too many bottoms vying for too few seats.

Airlines hate bumping - it’s bad public relations. But it’s also permissible under federal rules. Those same rules protect passengers and make sure they are compensated in most cases for their inconvenience.

The first step is for airlines to offer vouchers for future flights to entice passengers to voluntarily give up their seats. The more overbooked the flight, the more airlines offer. This can range from a ticket on the next flight plus a $150 voucher for future travel to two free first-class tickets.

The ploy usually works. More than 900,000 passengers on the 10 biggest airlines took the bait last year and gave up their overbooked seats.

But sometimes there aren’t enough volunteers. Then the airline starts telling people who will fly - and who is stuck at the airport.

Most airlines still honor tickets in reverse order of when you check in at the airport. The early birds get the seats. But with business fliers with expensive tickets grousing about service, more airlines are starting to give full-fare passengers first dibs on the seats. The less you paid, the less likely you will fly.

If you are bumped, know your rights:

Airlines must provide a written explanation of passengers’ rights, including what the government calls Denied Boarding Compensation.

No compensation is due if the airline finds substitute transportation that gets you to your destination within one hour of your original arrival time.

If the airline arranges another flight more than one hour but less than two hours after your original arrival time, the airline must pay an amount equal to the one-way fare to your final destination, up to $200.

If the new flight makes you more than two hours late - or the airline can’t arrange a flight at all - compensation doubles to twice the amount of the one-way fare, $400 maximum.

The compensation is separate from your original ticket, which must be honored for another flight or be completely refunded.

Passengers are entitled to on-the-spot payments at the airport.

But read the fine print and ask questions. There are exceptions to the rules:

Passengers must have a confirmed reservation and have arrived at the airport by the minimum time needed to check in (this varies by airline).

The rules do not apply to charters - including the recently popular “scheduled charters” that fly every day and otherwise look and act like scheduled carriers. Be sure to ask whether your airline is a charter.

Planes carrying fewer than 60 passengers are exempt.

How to beat the hassle of getting bumped? Here are some tips:

Arrive early to avoid getting bumped - most airlines bump the last-arriving passengers.

Avoid flights on Sunday afternoons and the last flights of the day - they often are overbooked and there’s less chance of catching a later flight the same day.

Foreign airlines have their own rules - ask before you book. A European Union agreement covers most major carriers in Europe.

Complain, complain, complain - you can sometimes get additional compensation by writing to the airline’s consumer-affairs office.

Click here to comment on this story »