Flight Overbooked? Know Your Rights as a Passenger

You go through so many hoops to pack your luggage, get to the airport on time, check-in, take off your shoes and jacket to get through security...it might seem shocking that your seat isn't a guarantee.

After a recent viral video showing airport security forcibly dragging a doctor off his flight, you might wonder just what rights you have when you’re attempting to vacay or make a business meeting.

The long and the short is that generally speaking, whatever airline and airport officials and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says… goes. While abiding by the rules will definitely make it less likely that you’ll be ripped out of your seat, if you’re ever caught in a dicey situation and feel your temper boiling, here’s a rundown of your airline traveler rights, straight from the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

Schedules are more of an estimate than a promise

From a broken coffee maker to traffic up in the skies, there are dozens (upon dozens) of reasons why your flight can be canceled. That’s why the DOT explains—in black and white—that your departing time is never guaranteed. (Here are 13+ things your pilot won’t tell you.)

“Airlines don’t guarantee their schedules, and you should realize this when planning your trip,” notes DOT on its website. “There are many things that can—and often do—make it impossible for flights to arrive on time. If your flight is delayed, try to find out how late it will be. But keep in mind that it is sometimes difficult for airlines to estimate the total duration of a delay during its early stages.” So-called “creeping delays” occur when the reason for the delay turns out to be worse than initially expected, like a mechanical problem that turns out to be complex or a stubborn storm that doesn’t clear out. “If the problem is with local weather or air traffic control, all flights will probably be late and there’s not much you or the airline can do to speed up your departure.”

So what happens when you’re faced with a never-ending day of delays or your flight is flat-out canceled? Depending on what you’re dealing with, your rights vary.

If your flight is delayed…

Trying to get home a few days before the holidays? Or over a long weekend in the dead of summer? You can pretty much bet your pricey, pretty penny that you’ll experience some sort of travel mishap. Most of the time, airlines do their best to reassign passengers to later flights, but meal tickets? Cash money? Those things aren’t required by federal regulation, but mainly, perks and peace offerings to keep those stranded happy and calm. As the DOT explains, “If you are delayed, ask the airline staff if it will pay for meals or a phone call. Some airlines, often those charging very low fares, do not provide any amenities to stranded passengers. Others may not offer amenities if the delay is caused by bad weather or something else beyond the airline’s control. Contrary to popular belief, domestic itineraries airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled.”

If you’re bumped from a flight…

When the airline employee comes over the loudspeaker to ask for volunteers, this is your chance to make some money or get a travel voucher. If you’re not in a big hurry to get to your destination, giving up your seat so the airline can accommodate other passengers can mean hundreds of dollars or credits. But if no one raises their hand willingly, volunteers will be selected based on a combination of criteria determined by the airlines—as was the case with the recent United airlines flap. (To be clear, that specific flight wasn’t overbooked, contrary to other reports. The passengers had to be removed to accommodate crew members.) Either way, it is illegal for a passenger to object; they must abide by the mandate. However, more likely than not, the DOT says you’ll be nicely compensated for your random selection. “Those passengers bumped against their will are, with a few exceptions, entitled to compensation,” they write. “DOT has not mandated the form or amount of compensation that airlines offer to volunteers. DOT does, however, require airlines to advise any volunteer whether he or she might be involuntarily bumped and, if that were to occur, the amount of compensation that would be due.”

You can negotiate…

Your seat number is pulled and now you’re going to miss your kid sister’s graduation. You’re upset—obviously—but that doesn’t mean you have to take their first offer for compensation. As DOT says, “Carriers can negotiate with their passengers for mutually acceptable compensation. Airlines generally offer a free trip or other transportation benefits to prospective volunteers. The airlines give employees guidelines for bargaining with passengers, and they may select those volunteers willing to sell back their reservations for the lowest price,” they write. “If the airline offers you a free ticket or a transportation voucher in a certain dollar amount, ask about restrictions. How long is the ticket or voucher good for? Is it ‘blacked out’ during holiday periods when you might want to use it? Can it be used for international flights?”

If you’re bumped, know your rights:

Of course, though, there are some nitty gritty details in the fine print to be aware of, the DOT emphasizes these points:

  1. If they put you on another flight getting you to your destination within one hour of your previous arrival time, you can’t receive any money.
  2. If it’s between one to two hours, the airline must pay you 200 percent of your one-way ticket. If it’s more than two hours, you’re owed 400 percent of your one-way ticket. (This though, to note, is capped at a maximum of $1,350).
  3. If you used a frequent-flier program or travel points to book your ticket, your compensation will be based on the lowest of that particular flight.
  4. If you upgraded your flight (more legroom, for example) and you don’t get that same courtesy on your new flight, you’re due that money back, too.

Find out the other travel secrets the airlines won’t tell you.

Lindsay Tigar
Lindsay Aurora Tigar is an experienced digital editor and blogger in NYC. Her blog, Confessions of a Love Addict, has a large following around the world, and a book project based on the blog is under development. The New York Post named her New York City's most eligible single in January 2014. She was also selected as one of New York's most desirable singles by the lifestyle dating website Rachel & Chris and has partnered with several popular dating blogs to create viral content. She is part of the HerCampus Blogger Network and spoke at their summer conference on "How to Be a Powerhouse Blogger." She's a social media and digital media guru with large followings on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. She freelances for several sites, including Shape.com, eHarmony.com, AskMen.com, Engagement 101 and more. She's also the resident dater for Women'sHealthMag.com, writing weekly about her dating adventures in her "Dater Diary" column.