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When Bumped from a Flight

How to turn bad news to good news when your plane is overbooked

The departure lounge is overflowing. The gate attendant announces the flight is overbooked. Should you accept the airline's offer for another flight? David S. Stempler, executive director of the International Air Passengers Association, offers some counsel.

What is overbooking?

For any given flight, a certain percentage of people will not show up for whatever reason. Airline companies track the average no-show rate for specific routes and overbook accordingly. If the no-show rate is usually about 10 percent, the airline then books the flight at 110 percent capacity.

How do I avoid being bumped from an overbooked flight?

You should get to the airport early, check in early, and get to the gate early. But watch out: sometimes just checking in at the gate doesn't necessarily count--your options change from airline to airline. Your best bet is to actually be on the plane as soon as possible. Possession is nine-tenths of the law.

If I volunteer to be bumped, what should I expect in the way of compensation?

Usually, the airlines start with the minimum that they can get away with, which is about $200. You're at the mercy of the lowest offer from other bidders though, so if the airline offers a free ticket, you should grab it. Be warned: the savvy traveler will ask when the next guaranteed trip to his destination is available or risk being stranded on stand-by. Also, ask yourself what out-of-pocket expenses you will incur in waiting for the next plane, and if the airline will cover them.

What are my rights if I end up being bumped against my will?

When you buy a ticket, you've made a contract with the airline. Before you do anything, you have to make sure you've held up your end. Did you check in on time, for instance? Also, if the airline can get you to your destination within an hour of your originally scheduled time, it is free of any liability. Between one and two hours, though, it has to pay the amount of a one-way ticket to your destination (maximum $200). After that, the compensation doubles.

In all cases you get to keep the original ticket to use on another flight or can turn it in for a refund. Also, the Supreme Court has said that you can sue for compensatory damages to recoup whatever loss the delay might have cost you. If, for instance, being bumped forced you to miss a cruise that was paid for in advance, you can sue for the amount of that cruise, though the airline will probably try to get you to the cruise late rather than have to pay for the whole thing.

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Updated on April 7, 1996