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Being involuntarily bumped is a very rare occurrence, but tens of thousands of people do end up being forced off the flights they want to take each year.

Even after using the strategies in part 2 of this series, you might still find yourself left at the airport.

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What to Do if You're Bumped Off a Flight

How to make the best of a bad situation

Although the chances are always very low, sooner or later there's a risk that you too will be left behind, sitting glumly and watching your flight take off without you.

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



So there you are, at the gate, clutching your ticket and boarding pass, but the airline has told you there's no seat for you on the flight and you'll have to wait for a later flight.

What are your rights?  What should you do?

Use the information in this article to understand how best to make the disappointment and inconvenience of missing your flight into a more positive experience.

Prepare for the Inevitable

The good news is you're on this page now - and hopefully you're not reading it while at an airport and being told you won't be boarded onto your 'confirmed' flight.

You should read through as much of this multi-part series as time and interest allows you to do, so that you fully understand the issues and opportunities inherent in an overbooking situation.  This will take the 'heat' out of a future problem, and will equip you with the knowledge and tools to negotiate the best outcome possible from any such overbooking problem you encounter.

Hopefully you've also already made use of the strategies in the second part of this series - how to reduce your chances of being involuntarily bumped.

But if you start to get the feeling that you might be bumped, forewarned may be forearmed.

Significant and Benign Signs of Being Bumped

Benign signs not worth worrying about

If when you book your flight, you can't get a seat preassigned, because all the seats in the seat map are showing as being already assigned, that does not necessarily mean you'll be bumped.  Airlines always hold back some seats to give them flexibility in moving people together, etc etc, and to keep in reserve for VIP passengers.

Plus, a certain amount of overbooking is safe.  So don't worry if no seats appear available when you first book your flight.

You can be further reassured that you'll not have a problem if the flight you have booked was available at a bargain price discount fare.  Usually, when a flight starts to get closer to being maxed out in terms of the number of tickets the airline will sell, the airline first of all stops selling cheap tickets, and then successively starts to stop selling more and more expensive seats.

Significant issues to be sensitive to

If you go to pre-print your boarding pass the day before your flight and still can't get a seat assignment, that is starting to become a bit more alarming, because at this point, the airline is starting to release some seats and 'quality control' its expectation of who will and won't be flying.

If you can't get a seat assigned when checking your luggage at the terminal, then you should become more concerned.

And if you can't get a seat assigned at the gate, then it is time to start to be alarmed.  Lastly, if they are asking for volunteers, you should be very alarmed.

Key questions to ask up front

If you can't get a seat assigned to you, it is helpful for you to understand if you're likely to get on the flight or not, and what the worst case scenario may be if you don't get on board.

Ask :

  • How many seats on the plane

  • How many people have already checked in for the flight

  • How many people ahead of me on the waiting list for seats

  • What would my protection be if you can't get me on this flight

  • Don't sugar coat it - can you give me a guesstimate, which I won't hold you to - do you think I'll make this flight or should I start preparing for the worst

  • When will you start boarding

  • When will you be releasing seats

This is also the time you come up with any creative reasons you might have as to why you should not be one of the bumped passengers.

You might get a series of answers such as there are 175 seats, we have 120 people already checked in, and you're number 10 on the waiting list.  The significance of that isn't great, but you can then start to monitor how many people might be volunteering, and also get a feeling for how many people are being given seat assignments.

You might want to not go and sit in a seat far away from the podium.  Instead you might want to (non-obstructively) hover close to the podium so you can see what is going on.

You also want to start double checking your alternate flight routings, and if you can find a better routing than the one you might be rescheduled to, why not go back to the podium and ask about that.

You don't want to be a nuisance, but you do want to positively be present and you want to make sure you register on their radar as being an anxious pleasant and potentially appreciative passenger they should try and help.

What you should never ever do is make any threats.  Never say anything stupid like 'if you don't get me on this flight, I'll never fly with your airline again'.

What to Do Shortly Before Boarding Starts

Shortly before boarding starts, go back to the podium and get an update on the flight numbers.

Maybe you might find that there are 175 seats on the plane, 165 people checked in, eight volunteers, and ten people on the waiting list for seats ahead of you.  In such a case, if only a couple more people volunteer, you'd be able to get a seat.

Ask what they are offering as an inducement for volunteers (maybe you might want to accept it yourself!), and ask if they could place another call and perhaps increase the inducement slightly to get a couple more volunteers to come forward.

As soon as people start to board the plane, your options start to collapse in on themselves, so you want to have this discussion shortly before boarding is due to start.

What to Do After Seat Release Time

After seats have been released (this is usually some time after boarding has started, so we're discussing it after the prior to boarding section), wait a few minutes until the initial flurry of activity has finished, and go back to the podium and ask how many passengers have now checked in, and how many people remain on the waiting list in front of you.

You can even ask - either now or earlier - 'Is there anything I can say or do to increase my priority on this list?'.  Who knows, they might tell you something important and helpful that you'd overlooked.

What to Do When You're Formally Refused Boarding

Don't get upset or angry at the gate agent.  They are not responsible for the problem.  They are not the people who decide how many seats to sell on the flight.

Indeed, you should start off by saying 'That is very disappointing, and also very inconvenient, but I do understand it is not your fault and not your choice.  So let's see if we can't try and make the best of a bad job here.'  If you are polite and positive, you're more likely to get more than if you're rude and abusive.

Now here's an interesting twist.  Understand exactly what the airline's obligations are for involuntarily denied boarding passengers (see the last two parts of this article series), and then contrast that with what they were offering to volunteers.  Maybe (quite likely) they were offering more to people who volunteered than the minimum obligation under the DoT regulations.

In such a case, you should ask to become a volunteer too, for obvious reasons.

And now - the best part of the twist :  Ask for a bit more than what the volunteers received.  You could say 'Because I'm an involuntary category person, I think I deserve more compensation, because obviously it was worth more to me to be on the flight than what you were offering volunteers as compensation.  (Pause for a second for this to sink in, then continue.)  Plus, if I offer to volunteer, you can then categorize me as a volunteer and that will look better in your Department of Transportation filings and public statistics.'

Beyond this, you should follow the suggestions in the two pages about negotiating compensation; these apply pretty much the same whether you're being involuntarily or voluntarily bumped off the flight.

One extra thing, though.  You can insist on your rights and then use that as a lever to get more than the minimum legal entitlement.  Here's how :

Getting More than the Minimum Legal Entitlement

Depending on how long the delay will be in getting you to where you ultimately were booked to go, you'll be entitled, in the US, for compensation of up to $800.  This compensation must be offered to you in cash.

Now, here's an interesting thing.  Airlines hate to give you cash.  If they give you $400 or $800 in cash compensation, that is clearly something that costs them exactly the sum they pay you.  A $400 check costs them $400 - that is obvious to us all.

But, if they give you travel vouchers instead, the cost to them is greatly less.  How much does a free ticket really cost them?  $25?  $50?  Somewhere between these two figures (assuming it isn't for international travel).

A free ticket is worth a great deal more to you than it costs the airline.  So you should try and cut a deal whereby instead of getting the $400 or $800 in cash (as well as anything/everything else you can get) you then say 'I'll take the $400 in cash, or $800 in a voucher to apply against future flights'.

Or, if the airline gives away free tickets, you might say 'instead of $400 in cash, I'll accept two (or whatever number you wish) free ticket vouchers instead, and one of them can be in my name but the other one can be in anyone else's name, and need not be on the same flights as me'.

Or whatever else you can negotiate.  Ask the gate agent what is easiest for them.  Some airlines like giving away free tickets, others like giving away vouchers towards the cost of future flights.  But, as a rule of thumb, seek to get vouchers worth twice the cash sum you'd otherwise get.

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

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Originally published 24 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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