Voluntary vs. Involuntary Bumping

It's time to lay a little truth on you:

The travel world is not the glamorous, customer-adoring, classiness-radiating, white-gloved bubble that it used to be.

Lots of things - both good and bad - have come along that have changed the euphoric Member's Only Club that flight once was.

Things like: airline deregulation. increased mobility among a wider range of socio-economic classes. underwear bombs. hijacked airplanes. 9/11. unbundled fares.

So to put a little perspective on your bold venture to cram yourself into a glorified sardine can before you go hurtling through the skies a few thousand feet above the earth, just remember: Airlines are concerned with profits and with safety.

Airlines (at least here in the U.S.A.) are private entities. When you nestle into your tiny little 28- to 30-inch seat-pitch pocket, you're on private property. Soon enough, you'll be soaring through federal-regulated airspace, or international airspace. Really, really, really high up in the air.

Airline staff, then, is first and foremost there to ensure your safety, because planes (and people) are not always predictable. (Usually, they are, sure. But not always.) Airline staff are not your friends or your waitstaff. There is no "I-paid-you-to-be-nice-to-me" protocol. They may be friendly, but their first concern is safety.

And they make the rules.

You do have rights. They just might not be what you think they are.

As a paying passenger, by purchasing the ticket you've agreed to accept the terms of the airline's Contract of Carriage (which vary by carrier). You're probably more familiar with the baggage rights and the delicate intricacies of status matches and upgrades.

But for this blog, we'll be addressing: life's little bumps.

Airlines often over-sell their flights.
Yes, you may roll your eyes at this.
No, it's not illegal.
It's business.


Voluntary and Involuntary Bumping

Airlines often over-sell their flights. Yes, you may roll your eyes at this. No, it's not illegal. It's a business decision because there are enough of us (the roiling masses of consumers) who don't call in to cancel our flights in time, or don't leave with enough time to make it through security, or - for whatever perfectly reasonable, we're-sure-it's-not-you're-fault-because-the-customer-is-always-right reason - just don't make it to the gate on time to board.

That's okay. It happens.

In fact, it happens enough that the airline (which makes more money when its seats are full) gambles a bit to make sure the seats ARE full.

Don't fault them for gambling. This is the great American way. (See: Wall Street, Atlantic City, Kenny Rogers)

Alas, sometimes that passenger is you.

The downside to the airlines overbooking flights so they can be sure to make enough money in order to keep your favorite flight route operating is this: sometimes, they have to bump passengers.

And, alas, sometimes that passenger is you.

So let's talk about the kinds of bumping, and what your rights are if you are, indeed, bumped.

Voluntary Bumping

Voluntary bumping is that slightly annoying, loud-speaker, carnival-barker, step-right-up charade that makes passengers feel like they're in some control. It typically happens in the gate area. The DOT has no regulations or set terms for voluntary bumping, so it's up to the airline to decide what to offer. That's usually compensation in trade, like a flight voucher (in addition to a seat on a later flight to get you to your destination).

If you aren't too concerned about your time schedule, you can play the odds. Just remember to ask the right questions, like:

  • Are there any restricted destinations for your voucher (and can you use it on international flights)?
  • Is there an expiration date?
  • Are there black-out dates?
  • How far in advance of the flight can you make reservations?
  • Do you get vouchers for food/hospitality while you're waiting for the next flight?


Involuntary Bumping

Involuntary bumping can feel less like a carnival game and more like an episode of Survivor. The bumpee has little to no control over their bumping. It just is what it is. Involuntary bumping will also typically take place in the gate area. The DOT does have some regulations over what the bumped passenger is entitled to (we'll get to that), but it doesn't have a say over how the bumped passenger is selected. That's still up to the airline, and varies a bit according to who you're flying.

Possible reasons you may be selected to be involuntarily bumped:

  1. You are the passenger with the last check-in time, even if you were technically checked-in "on time"
  2. You are the passenger who paid the lowest price and has no status with the airline
  3. You are the passenger who checked in but didn't have a seat assignment


All involuntarily bumped passengers are entitled to a replacement ticket that will get you to your destination. You may choose to ask for a check instead, in which case you can negotiate with the airline over how much the check is.

Additionally, you're entitled to DOT-regulated compensation within the following parameters, if you have a confirmed reservation.

  • If the airline can get you to your final destination within an hour of the scheduled arrival time of the flight you just got bumped from, they don't have to pay you any money.
  • If the airline can get you to your final destination between an hour and two hours (or between one and four hours for an international flight) after the scheduled arrival time of the flight you just got bumped from, you're entitled to 200% of what you spent on your airline ticket, up to the $675 maximum set by the DOT.
  • If the airline can only get you to your final destination more than two hours (or four for an international flight) after the scheduled arrival time of the flight you just got bumped from, you're entitled to 400% of what you spent on your airline ticket, up to the $1350 maximum set by the DOT.
  • If you didn't pay for your ticket (if it's a voucher or a frequent flier redemption) the airline will use the lowest paid fair on the flight you're bumped from that has been paid for by cash, check, or credit card.
  • If you bought ancillary benefits (checked bag, priority seating, etc.) and don't end up using those ancillaries on your replacement flight, you will be refunded for them.


Exceptions to every rule

There are exceptions to the involuntary bumping compensations. These are U.S. rules, and therefore apply to domestic flights or flights originating in the U.S. Additionally, the compensation rules don't apply if:

  1. the airline has to use a smaller plane than originally scheduled, and all the originally-booked travelers won't fit
  2. the flight has 30-60 seats and you're bumped due to safety concerns regarding weight or balance restraints
  3. the flight is a charter flight or has fewer than 30 passengers


You Don't Know What You Don't Know

The savvy reader will notice that, above, I mentioned that bumping drama usually takes place in the gate area. Occasionally, it may have to happen after you've boarded. And that stinks.

A few things to keep in mind, though: The airlines aren't trying to piss you off; they're a business entity. If they have a crew that they need to move, you can bet they've already run the math and determined that involuntarily bumping a handful of passengers from one flight is worth it to make sure a flight-full of passengers can depart on time from wherever that flight crew is headed.

There's a shifting Rubik's Cube of plane shuffling going on, like a square-dance of Boeings and Airbuses and Cessnas and even a few McDonald Douglass MD-80s, and crews that hit their DOT-regulated time-limit can't call the tune. (They have to go to crash pads and sleep.) If a fresh crew is needed to keep the constant rotation of planes...well...rotating, the airline will bump passengers to get them there.

This is a business decision, not an indicator of their lack of humanity.

Maintaining that intricate schedule is worth a lot of money to the airline. How much? Well, you can ask them that when you've been involuntarily bumped.

It's not personal. And, obligatory side note: it's the FAA who will escort you off the plane, not the airline. So your interaction is with government officials at that point. Just a note to file away in your brain.


The Moral: Sometimes, It Stinks to Be a Passenger

We hope this blog has helped clarify how bumping works. We know the traveler's perspective; we live it with you every day, trying our utmost to help you get to your destination on time, in a pleasant and uneventful manner. Sometimes, understanding how things work (and being clearly communicated with/to about the rules and  your options) can help you get through an uncomfortable and unenviable situation.

The more you know, right?


For more information (including our source for this article) go here: Fly Rights - A Consumer Guide to Air Travel


Image by Tim Gouw via Unsplash
Chesley Turner

Written by Chesley Turner