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Everyday Law: Overbooked flights

Every day, air travelers arrive at the gate, ticket and carry-on in hand, only to learn that they may be bumped from the flight. For some travelers, getting bumped can be a disaster. For those with a flexible travel schedule, though, getting bumped can be an easy way to earn a little spending money for their trip, or free tickets for their next vacation. 

Airlines commonly sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane. This practice is legal, and helps airlines compensate for passengers who do not show up. Most of the time, there are enough no-shows that this isn’t a problem. However, when there are more passengers than seats when boarding begins, passengers may be bumped from the flight. 

Federal law (14 CFR 250 et seq) provides strict guidelines for handling oversold flights. These laws apply only to commercial airliners with 30 or more passenger seats that provide interstate or international air transportation. For international travel, these laws apply only to flights originating in the United States. These laws apply only to passengers bumped from a flight because of overbooking, not because a flight is canceled due to weather or equipment problems. To receive the protections and benefits of these rules, passengers must have confirmed reservations on the flight, and follow the airline’s check-in rules and procedures (14 CFR 250.6). 

In the event that there are more passengers than seats, federal law requires the airline to first ask for volunteers willing to give up their seat in exchange for compensation (14 CFR 250.2b(a)).  The law does not provide any guidelines on the type or amount of compensation for passengers who voluntarily give up their seats. The airlines are free to negotiate with the volunteers on a mutually acceptable compensation. Common offers include free tickets or vouchers for future travel, meals, hotel accommodations, or cash.  If free or reduced fares are included in the compensation offered, the airline must disclose any restrictions on the fares, such as expiration or blackout dates, to the volunteer prior to their acceptance of the offer (14 CFR 250.2b(c)).

These compensation offers are very attractive to some travelers, so sometimes there are more volunteers than needed. In these cases, the airline may select the volunteers of their choice based on the airline’s policies. Common policies include bumping the first passengers to volunteer, or the volunteers willing to accept the lowest compensation. 

The airline must inform volunteering passengers if they are in danger of being involuntarily bumped, how that decision will be made, and the possible compensation available to them in that event (14 CFR 250.2b). This gives passengers the opportunity to make an informed decision about accepting the voluntary compensation they negotiate, or taking a chance that they may be involuntarily bumped and receiving the legally required compensation instead.

If not enough passengers voluntarily give up their seats, the airline may deny boarding to passengers based on the airline’s boarding priority rules. Each airline must establish specific criteria for determining which passengers will be denied boarding in the event of an overbooked flight. The law describes some typical methods for making these determinations, such as check-in time, frequent-flyer status, or the fare paid (14 CFR 250.3(b)). These are just suggestions; airlines may make their own guidelines, as long as the rules do not give any unreasonable preference or disadvantage to any passenger (14 CFR 250.3(a)). These guidelines must be written in clear language that is understandable to the average passenger (14 CFR 250.3(a)). All passengers involuntarily bumped from a flight must be given a written description of the airline’s boarding priority rules (14 CFR 250.9), as well as an explanation the terms, conditions, and limitations of denied boarding compensation.

Federal law determines the amount of compensation owed to passengers denied boarding flight for which they have a confirmed reservation. The amount is based on the fare paid by the passenger and the length of the passenger’s delay arriving at their destination. If the airline provides alternate transportation that gets a passenger to the final destination within one hour of the originally scheduled flight, the passenger is not entitled to compensation (14 CFR 250.5(a)(1)).  If  alternate transportation gets a passenger to the final destination between one and two hours (one and four hours for international flights) of the original flight, the airline must pay an amount equal to 200% of the one-way fare to the final destination that day, with a $650 maximum (14 CFR 250.5(a)(2), 14 CFR 250.5(b)(2)). If alternate transportation gets passenger to the final  destination more than two hours (more than four hours for international flights) after the original flight, or if the airline does not make any alternate transportation arrangements, a passenger is entitled to 400% of the one-way fare, with a $1300 maximum (14 CFR 250.5(a)(3), 14 CFR 250.5(b)(3)). 

If a passenger have a “zero fare” ticket, such as a ticket obtained using frequent flyer miles, the compensation will be calculated based on lowest cash, check or credit card payment charged for a ticket in the same class of service (e.g., coach, first class) on that flight (14 CFR 250.5(d)).

To pay these amounts, the airline may offer free tickets or dollar-amount vouchers for future flights, as long as the compensation offered is equal to (or greater than) the amount required by law. When offering these alternate compensation options, the airline must provide all the details about restrictions, including blackout and expiration dates, and tell the passenger the amount of money they are owed in compensation. The passenger may decline the free tickets or vouchers and demand a cash or check payment instead (14 CFR 250.5(c)).

Airlines are required to provide the Department of Transportation with quarterly reports of the number of passengers denied boarding (14 CFR 250.10). These reports are posted online at http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/reports/index.htm. They provide details about the numbers of passengers voluntarily and involuntarily bumped by each airline. Use this information when making your travel plans, whether you’re trying to avoid being bumped, or looking for an opportunity to earn cash, free tickets, or vouchers for your next trip. 

For more information on this and other "Everyday Law" subjects, visit the Sacramento County Public Law Library, "Providing Free Public Access to Legal Information for over 100 years."

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