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What Are Your Rights When You’re Involuntarily Bumped?


Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past 72 hours, you’ve no doubt heard about the passenger forcibly removed from a United flight earlier this week.

While the visuals were shocking, the act of involuntarily bumping passengers is pretty commonplace. Airlines try to avoid this and can usually find passengers willing to take a different flight in exchange for compensation (which United attempted to do in this case). But ultimately, airlines can and will remove you from overbooked flights when necessary. Most people go calmly, if not happily. But legally if the airline tells you to go, you have to go.

Fortunately, you have rights when you are involuntarily bumped. The Department of Transportation takes this issue seriously and has several rules in place designed to protect and compensate affected passengers. The DOT’s website has the full rules, but here are the highlights:

  • First, the DOT requires airlines to give passengers “a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold flight and who doesn’t.”
  • If the airline re-accomodates you on a flight that gets you to your final destination within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time, there is no compensation.
  • If the alternative flight gets you there between one and two hours later (or between one and four hours on international flights), you should receive an amount equal to “200% of your one-way fare to your final destination that day, with a $675 maximum.”
  • Finally, if you’re more than two hours late (four hours internationally), or if the airline doesn’t re-accomodate you at all, you should get “400% of your one-way fare, up to a $1,350 maximum.”

The airline must also refund any optional services you paid for (like seat selection) if you don’t receive them on the alternative flight.

Your carefully scheduled travel plans can be significantly disrupted by an involuntary bumping. Fortunately, it’s pretty rare. According to the DOT, only 8,955 of the 164,615,313 passengers who flew between October and December 2016 were involuntarily bumped. That’s 0.54 per 10,000.

So it probably won’t happen to you, which is good. But it’s still important to know your rights.

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