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Airline Mismanagement

If someone's got to be left behind, here are some ways to reduce the chance of it being you.

This assumes, of course, that you don't wish to volunteer and win some generous compensation for a not unacceptably inconvenient delay.

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How to Reduce Your Chances of Being Bumped

Here are a baker's dozen (13) strategies to help you avoid being left behind

Maybe making your flight is so important that you'll even offer to sit on the wing.

Hopefully the suggestions below will get you a more comfortable seat inside the plane.

Part of a series on being bumped from flights, see the other articles in this series listed on the right.



Just because the airline has ended up needing to refuse boarding to one (or even ten) passengers doesn't mean you have to be one of the passengers who then suffer the inconvenience of a missed flight.

Use the information in these thirteen suggested strategies to minimize your chances of being bumped in the first place, and to maximize your chances of being restored to your flight if you're threatened with being bumped.

Some Flights Are More Likely to Have Problems Than Others

There is no published data to allow us to accurately understand which flights are more likely to be overbooked and with some passengers forced to take later flights.

But common sense suggests that some flights will be more likely to have problems than others - not so much due to the airlines guessing consistently wrong, but rather because when overbooking does become a problem, the airline finds it harder to get volunteers.

People will willingly volunteer if they are offered fair/generous compensation, and if the later flight offered by the airline isn't too much later.  So if an airline has, say, two flights to the same destination, one at 7am and another at 9am, it is not much of a hardship to ask people to arrive two hours later, and so, with a reasonably generous offer, people are likely to volunteer in this case.

But if the airline has problems on a flight at, say, 3pm and doesn't have any more flights until the next day, asking people to lose potentially half a day or more of their travels will be a more difficult request, and will probably result in fewer volunteers.

Similarly, a flight in to an airline's major hub is more likely to have volunteers than a flight nonstop to a specific destination, because the hub flight is more likely to have other flights to that hub meaning that, for at least some passengers, there will still be easy ways to get to where they want to go.

Weather Related Issues

If you are traveling in the winter, you should attempt to avoid flights through airports that are notorious for being susceptible to weather problems.  These tend to be airports in the midwest and east coast.

A related strategy is to try and avoid connecting flights, seeking out nonstop flights, so as to avoid the added vulnerabilities in the hub airport, unless it is a hub airport well away from weather worries.

For example, if flying from coast to coast, if you had a choice of hubbing through Chicago or Atlanta, it would be better to go through Atlanta, even if the total travel time is longer, because Atlanta is generally more weather-resilient than Chicago.

When to Start Worrying

It is relatively common to find that you have booked a flight but can't get a seat assignment at the time you book the flight.  All airlines hold back some seats and only allow some/most of the seats on each flight to be pre-assigned.

Plus, of course, with a perhaps 50% oversell rate on your flight, some people won't be able to get seat assignments anyway because the airline is still waiting to see who will turn up for the flight and who won't.

Not getting your seat assignment when you buy your ticket is therefore no cause for concern.

But if you still don't get a seat assignment if doing an advance checkin perhaps 24 hours prior to flight departure, your level of anxiety can justifiably go up a notch or two.  At this point the airline is releasing more seats and is starting to get a clearer picture of who is actually going to be traveling and who won't be traveling.

When you actually get to the airport, if you haven't already got a seat assignment, you then really should hope to be given one as soon as you check in, either in the departures hall when checking bags, or at the gate upon going through security.  If you don't get a seat assignment then, you should start to worry and start deploying the strategies 7 - 10 below.

Not getting a seat assignment at this point does not mean you'll be bumped, but it means you're on the 'possibly might be bumped' list.  The airline still doesn't know how many people who have been earlier assigned seats - either when first booking, or when doing an online checkin a day prior - will actually turn up for the flight.  But it does mean that the airline has run out of assignable seats, and you're now having to hope that enough people will fail to turn up for their flight as to mean that enough seats will become available for you and all the people ahead of you on the list of people waiting for seat assignments.

If you see the sign at the gate calling for volunteers, and/or if the gate agent makes announcements asking people to volunteer, then you know that for sure there's a problem with the flight.  It is perfectly fair to enquire as to how many people have checked in, how many unchecked-in seats remain to be assigned, and where you are on the list of people waiting to get a seat assignment, so you can understand yourself what your chances are of being boarded.

Ten Ways to Reduce Your Chance of Being Involuntarily Bumped

If you are in a 'must travel' situation, there are a few things you can do to reduce your very low chance of being bumped (and do keep in mind that very few people suffer from involuntary bumping, so don't let concerns about this rule your travel planning).

1.  Choose an airline with lots of flights to your destination

Choose an airline with plenty of flights to where you're traveling.  This gives the airline more flexibility and greater ease in encouraging people to take a later flight if/when they have an overbooking issue.

It means there will be more people willing to volunteer, reducing the need for involuntary bumping, and it also means if you are bumped, your delay will hopefully be less than it otherwise would be.

2.  Avoid the last flight of the day

Second, try and avoid the last flight of the day - because missing this flight, with the need for an overnight stay prior to flying out - will have a greater inconvenience that may discourage people from volunteering to be bumped.

And, of course, it also means a greater inconvenience to you if you do get bumped off the flight.

3.  Fly with an airline you have a (hopefully elite) frequent flier status with

Try and concentrate your flying with an airline sufficiently as to qualify for their elite level frequent flier program.

When the airline has to bump, it first bumps 'unknown' travelers, and only goes after loyal frequent fliers after running out of unknown travelers.  If you get elite status, that is best, but even being a regular frequent flier member, with your membership number in your reservation, will give you a bit of extra negotiating power and reduce your chances of being bumped to start with.

4.  More expensive fares are less likely to be bumped

Consider paying a bit more for a higher costing ticket.  Airlines typically bump the passengers who have paid least for their tickets first, giving preference to allowing passengers who have paid more to be allowed on the flight.

But also keep in mind that if the flight you want has no discounted fares remaining, that might mean that the airline is already heavily overselling the flight, which might slightly increase your risk.

Look for a flight that still has the lowest fares available, but choose a slightly higher fare if you're in an essential 'must travel' situation (and can't also use other priority-boosting things such as being an elite frequent flier).

5.  Don't break any airline checkin rules

Arrive at the airport sufficiently early and be sure to observe all the airline's requirements for check-in timings, so as not to give the airline any 'get out of jail free' excuse to bump you without them incurring any penalty or needing to categorize you as a bumped passenger.

Airlines will mercilessly bump people who don't check in on time or in any other way fail to meet their procedural requirements, because in such cases they don't have to report such bumps officially, and also they then don't need to pay you compensation.

If a flight is not going to leave full, you might be able to check in late, but if the flight is full and the airline is looking for volunteers, you'll be in trouble.

6.  Check in early to get higher up the waiting list

Don't just check in shortly prior to the airline's deadlines.  Get to the airport earlier than normal, because an airline tends to also prioritize passengers based on when they check in.

If you check in before someone else, then all other things being reasonably equal, you'll be higher up the list of people hoping to get a seat on the flight.

7.  Get a lounge agent to help you

If you find yourself waiting for your flight, if you've checked in, and still don't have a seat assigned, then if you belong to the airline's lounge program, go to the lounge and ask the agents in the lounge if they can get you a seat assignment, or - failing that - to at least get you a higher priority on the waiting list for seats.

These agents may have extra privileges and powers to improve your priority/status on the flight, and they will treat you more positively than a harried gate agent.

8.  Use your Elite frequent flier reservation service

If you are in the situation mentioned in #7 and not a lounge member (or if the lounge agent couldn't help) and if you are an elite frequent flier with the airline, call your elite frequent flier reservation number and ask the reservationist there for assistance and help.

9.  Can your company or travel agent help

Again, if scenario #7 applies and you've already tried the suggestions in that scenario and scenario #8, and if your company has a direct relationship with the airline, or if the travel agent you booked your travel with has a good relationship with the airline, have them call their 'special service desk' number to help get your seat on the flight confirmed.

10.  Don't give in, and try to positively negotiate a place on the flight

If you are told that you may be bumped, don't just passively accept that without complaint.  Ask - politely and positively - for the gate agent to reconsider their decision.

Tell them 'I know you have some discretion in who you choose to bump and not bump, and I know most of the people here are not going to be bumped.  I would ask you to choose to confirm me a seat, because (and then refer to as many of the preceding points as possible to explain why you should be given preferential treatment compared to other passengers).

If you are connecting to another flight, and being bumped would cause you to miss your connection, you should tell them about that, too.  They probably already know that, if the connecting flight is operated by themselves, but don't assume they've carefully checked this, and if it is a flight on a different airline, they probably don't already know this, and that might encourage them to allow you to fly, rather than cause a series of increasingly worse and worse problems to unfold.

11.  Choose the 'better' airlines

Selectively pick and choose airlines with lower rates of bumping.  Within the US, your best choice is Jetblue because they never oversell their flights.

Use the DoT reports to see which airlines have the highest and lowest rates of bumping to guide you to the safest airline choices.

12.  Offer to accept any open seat

If you've ever watched gate agents working a full flight, you'll know that the last few minutes prior to the jetway door being closed get totally chaotic and hectic.  Remarkably, no matter what degree of computerization is involved in the boarding process, there always seem to be last minute confusions about how many people have actually boarded the flight, and you'll see gate agents sorting through messes of collected boarding passes and ticket copies, and maybe even an agent will go onto the plane to physically count the people on board.

Wait until what you sense to be a minute or two prior to when they'll close the jetway door, then go up to a gate agent and say 'Can I board the flight?  I'll take any open seat; there's no need to give me a seat assignment; and I only have this carry-on luggage' (if applicable, or 'and my luggage is already on the plane if applicable').

Sometimes you'll find the gate agent will then allow you to board.  Take the first empty seat you see, and count yourself as lucky!

13.  Dress for success

Although the days of people dressing up in their best Sunday suits and dresses for an ordinary airline flight are long gone, some of this past history still lingers, particularly in the minds of the airline staff you'll encounter at the airport.

For example, even now, when airline staff and other industry insiders are traveling on reduced rate or free tickets, they are generally expected to observe a dress code that requires them to dress slightly better than perhaps most of the other people on the flight will dress.  It used to be, when I was traveling on free first class international tickets, I was always expected to wear a business suit and tie, and this became rather ridiculous because the 'real' first class passengers would dress in casual comfortable clothes for the long journey, while those of us on free industry/staff tickets would be wearing the suits and ties.

Anyway, you can use this to your advantage.  Some readers have reported they've felt they've been unfairly singled out to be bumped off flights due to being more casually dressed than others, while perceiving others to have been allowed to fly perhaps due to looking like 'more important' passengers.

There's no need to overdress, but if you leave the beach shorts and flip flops in your suitcase, that might make a bit of extra difference.

Part of a series on being bumped from flights, see the other articles in this series listed on the top right.

Related Articles, etc

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Originally published 17 Jul 2009, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

Related Articles
All about airline overbooking of flights
How to reduce your chances of being involuntarily bumped
Volunteering to be bumped
What to do if you are involuntarily bumped
How to negotiate the best bumping compensation part 1
How to negotiate the best bumping compensation part 2
Your legal rights if bumped in the US
Your legal rights if bumped in the EU
Is the DoT Trying to Embarrass the Airlines part 1
Is the DoT Trying to Embarrass the Airlines part 2
New legal rights in the US 2011


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