Is It Legal to Overbook Flights?

By Paul Williams

Overbooking is not illegal, and most airlines overbook their scheduled flights to a certain extent in order to compensate for "no-shows." Passengers are sometimes left behind or "bumped" as a result. When an oversale occurs, the U. S. Department of Transportation requires airlines to ask people who aren't in a

hurry to give up their seats voluntarily, in exchange for compensation. Those passengers bumped against their will are, with a few exceptions, entitled to compensation. What's fair and what's not? When can an airline bump you involuntarily? What should you get if you get bumped voluntarily?

VOLUNTARY BUMPING

Almost any group of airline passengers includes some people with urgent travel needs and others who may be more concerned about the cost of their tickets than about getting to their destination on time. The rules require airlines to seek out people who are willing to give up their seats for some compensation before bumping anyone involuntarily.

Here's how this works:

At the check-in or boarding area, airline employees will look for volunteers when it appears that the flight has been oversold. If you're not in a rush to arrive at your next destination, you can give your reservation back to the airline in exchange for compensation and a later flight.

The Department of Transportation has not said how much the airline has to give volunteers. This means carriers may negotiate with their passengers for a mutually acceptable amount of money-or maybe a free trip or other benefits.

Airlines give employees guidelines for bargaining with passengers, and they may select those volunteers willing to sell back their reservations for the lowest price.

If the airline offers you a free ticket, ask about restrictions. How long is the ticket good for? Is it "blacked out" during holiday periods when you might want to use it? Can it be used for international flights? Most importantly, can you make a reservation, and if so, how far before departure are you permitted to

make it?

INVOLUNTARY BUMPING

The U.S. Department of Transportation requires each airline to give all passengers who are bumped involuntarily a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn't. Those travelers who don't get to fly are frequently entitled to an

on-the-spot payment of denied boarding compensation. The amount depends on the price of their ticket and the length of the delay.

The most effective way to reduce the risk of being bumped is to get to the airport early. On oversold flights the last passengers to check in are usually the first to be bumped, even if they have met the check-in deadline. Allow extra time: assume that the airport access road is backed up, the parking lot is full, and there is a long line at the check-in counter. However, if you arrive so early that your airline has another flight to your destination leaving before the one that you are booked on, either switch to the earlier flight or don't check your bag until after the first flight leaves. If you check your bag right away, it might get put on the earlier flight and remain unattended at your destination airport for hours.

Airlines may offer free transportation on future flights in place of a check for denied boarding compensation. However, if you are bumped involuntarily you have the right to insist on a check if that is your preference. Once you cash the check (or accept the free flight), you will probably lose the right to demand more money from the airline later on. However, if being bumped costs you more money than the airline will pay you at the airport, you can try to negotiate a higher settlement with their complaint department. If this doesn't work, you usually have 30 days from the date on the check to decide if you want to accept the amount of the check. You are always free to decline the check and take the airline to court to try to obtain more compensation. The government's denied-boarding regulation spells out the airlines' minimum obligation to people they bump involuntarily.

Finally, don't be a "no-show". If you are holding confirmed reservations you don't plan to use, notify the airline. If you don't, they will cancel all onward or return reservations on your trip.

Paul Williams is Supplements Editor for the Los Angeles Business Journal. Additional information was provided by the U. S. Department of Transportation.

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