It comes to no surprise that the public is at an uproar with the recent United passenger who was removed from a flight due to overbooking. What are your rights as a passenger when it comes to an overbooked flight?

Why do Airlines Overbook flights?

Overbooking is a common practice for airlines designed to ensure every plane departs at full capacity. It may sound counterintuitive, the practice of selling more tickets on an airplane than there are seats benefits both airlines and passengers. Based on years of statistical data and algorithms to compensate for “no-shows”, airlines continue to overbook flights to maximize their profits. It may be a passenger’s worse nightmare however overbooking is a perfectly legal practice. Although overbooking is common, the number of passengers who are denied boarding is small.

While the airlines maximize profits, passengers enjoy an array of flexibility due to overbooking such as moving their travel dates after purchase or in situations when a customer misses their flight, still having an opportunity to arrive at their destination. Overbooking also allows the airlines to keep flight costs low.

Know Your Rights

Although overbooking is legal, as a paying customer you should know your rights if you are ever bumped from your flight. In the event, you are in an overbook flight situation, a gate agent will proactively look for volunteers to move to a later flight often lined with travel vouchers or other types of compensation. Compensation such as free meals, free upgrades or admission into their swanky airport lounges help sweeten the pot too. If the airline cannot clear enough seats, the pay-off will generally increase as the flight nears take-off eventually capping off at $1,350 per person.

Most passenger are unaware that they enter in a legal contract each time they purchase an airline ticket. A passenger’s rights are defined in the Contract of Carriage which clearly outlines the legal expectations of the passenger and the airlines. Under contract each passenger agrees that their flight may be overbooked and can be involuntarily denied boarding based on the airlines discretion only after a reasonable amount of compensation has not been accepted. In an event, there are more passengers than seats, an airline is legally able to involuntarily deny boarding or remove passengers.

What to Do if you are on an Overbooked Flight

If you are sitting at your gate and hear your flight is overbooked you will have to think about which options benefits you the most. You will need to ask yourself how important it is for you to arrive at your destination on how much you are willing to be compensated.

In most cases, there will be enough volunteers who are willing to accept travel vouchers in which you will remain on your flight. If there are not enough volunteers, any passengers who are denied boarding will then be compensated for missing their flight which can constitute a higher pay off.

So which airlines should I take?

GOOD: Hawaiian , Delta and Virgin America
BAD: Alaska, United, Spirit and Frontier
WORSE: American, jetBlue and Southwest

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