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Overbooking and Cancellations

If my flight is overbooked and I cannot board the plane, what can I expect from the airline?

All airlines overbook their flights to compensate for "no-shows"-and this is completely legal. Therefore, passengers are sometimes "bumped" even when they purchased tickets weeks in advance. The U.S. Department of Transportation requires that airlines ask for volunteers to give up their seats when a passenger has been bumped, but there still may not be room for you on your scheduled flight.

Depending on the resulting waiting time, the airline must reimburse you as follows:

  • Within 1 hour of your originally scheduled arrival time, no reimbursement.
  • Within 2 hours, 100 percent of the value of the flight coupon for that segment of the trip, to a maximum of $200.
  • Longer than 2 hours, 200 percent of the value of your flight coupon for that segment of your trip, to a maximum of $400.

The airlines are not responsible for compensating passengers who are denied boarding due to late check-ins (usually a minimum of 20 minutes before departure) or when a larger plane has been substituted for a smaller one due to operating or safety reasons.

For charter flights carrying 60 or fewer passengers, or international flights inbound to the United States, these rules do not apply.

If I voluntarily give up my seat due to overbooking, what can I expect from the airline?

In exchange for giving up your seat, you can expect travel vouchers or a cash award. The airline determines the compensation and, when awarding travel vouchers, the airline also determines the restrictions.

Once you give up your seat, the airline is obliged to schedule you on the next flight where space is available, which may not mean the next flight. However, a "bumped" passenger can request that the airline book you on another carrier at no cost to you.

Can I try to be bumped from my flight?

Because being bumped has benefits, some passengers plan ahead to try to give up their seats, which is perfectly legal. You may increase your chances of being bumped by following these steps:

  1. Arrive at the airport at least 11/2 hours before departure.
  2. Ask the gate agent if any volunteers are needed.
  3. Request information on what compensation is being offered to volunteers. It is possible to negotiate, but the airlines are not obligated to increase the compensation. If others are willing to accept lesser compensation, you may lose the opportunity.
  4. Check the airlines' schedules, so you can request a flight you prefer.
  5. Ask the gate agent what flight would be your next available flight and make sure your seat is guaranteed. If they cannot guarantee your seat, ask to be protected under Rule 240. This rule is a set of general policies that usually require airlines to book bumped passengers on another carrier if they cannot accommodate the traveler on their own flights.
  6. Stay at the gate area until you have an official document showing you are confirmed on the new flight.

If the next flight is overbooked, use these same strategies for your new flight and you could end up with additional compensation.

If my flight is delayed or cancelled, can I receive any compensation?

Many things can cause a delay at the airport-weather, mechanical problems, air traffic congestion-and the airlines are not obligated to compensate for the inconvenience. Each U.S. airline has its own policies concerning delays, cancellations, and missed connections called "Rule 240," which are required to be displayed at the airlines’ ticket counters. This rule is seldom enforced so it is wise to research your airline beforehand. This document describes where and when the airline will provide meal vouchers, lounge passes, free phone calls, hotel accommodations, cash payments and tickets on other airlines in the event of delays, cancellations or missed connections. Most Rule 240s state clearly that the airline is not required to compensate passengers in the event of strikes, bad weather, or other incidents. For information on each airline’s Rule 240, visit each airline’s Web site.

What is the best way to avoid flight delays and cancellations?

While there is no sure way to avoid delays and cancellations, these tips may help:

  • Book the first morning flight.
  • Fly nonstop.
  • Check the weather for your destination and areas along the planned route.
  • Allow at least 1 hour to make connections between connecting flights.

I have tickets for traveling on an airline that has declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy. What happens now?

Struggling airlines may continue to operate after declaring bankruptcy, so do not panic. If you have purchased your tickets using a credit card, you are protected under the Fair Credit Billing Act. This gives credit card customers the right to refuse to pay for services not rendered. You can check the Federal Trade Commission's Web site (www.ftc.gov) for additional information.

If you have purchased travel insurance, you may also have default protection. As a last resort, you can file a claim in bankruptcy court to recoup a portion of your losses.