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.
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
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
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
Benign signs not worth
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
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
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.
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
When will you start boarding
When will you be releasing
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
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
What to Do Shortly Before
Shortly before boarding
starts, go back to the podium and get an update on the flight
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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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24 Jul 2009, last update
21 Jul 2020
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