Avoid Getting Stranded By the Airlines -- Lessons Learned from a Family Who Was Bumped
Imagine getting to the airport with your family ready for a big trip and the seats you booked months ago have been given away to other passengers. This travel nightmare can become a reality when there are more ticketed passengers than there are seats on the aircraft. There are many reasons this can happen, but it typically occurs when the airline oversold the flight with more people than seats or the flight was downgraded to a smaller aircraft (although this practice is thankfully waning). While no one can control weather, maintenance issues and other unforeseen events, there are ways to reduce your chances of being the family who is booted off a flight.
To set the stage of how this can play out in real life, on April 20, American Airlines Flight 970 from New York's LaGuardia to Miami was originally scheduled on an aircraft holding 172 passengers. However, weather problems impacted the system the day before (when American canceled 672 flights systemwide -- five of which were the LaGuardia to Miami route) and the aircraft was downgraded to a smaller plane.
The new plane could only hold 160 passengers, and this was a prime travel weekend thanks to spring break, Easter and Passover all converging at once. The airline needed 16 passengers to volunteer to go on a later flight and offered $575 travel vouchers to rustle up interest. A few passengers took the deal willingly (known as a voluntary bump). However, since there weren't enough volunteers, some unlucky travelers had to take an involuntarily bump.
There have been situations where airlines have offered much more than a $575 voucher, such as a $10,000 voucher from United and $4,000 voucher from Delta. Based on my experience, the more the airline offers, the higher the probability that customers will volunteer.
One particular family, a mother with two young kids, were some of the unlucky travelers who on that day were involuntarily bumped from their flight. Although passenger Lindsey (who prefers to share just her first name for privacy reasons) reserved seats 32E, 31F and 32F when purchasing her tickets, when she checked in at the airport, her seats had disappeared and she was told to see the gate agent. Ultimately, Lindsey and her children were involuntarily bumped and rebooked to West Palm Beach (Miami was fully booked that day) on an itinerary with two layovers. Given the busy travel season, it took several hours just to get that less-than-ideal routing secured for three people.
But wait -- it got worse for Lindsey and her kids. A mechanical issue during one of her layovers forced the cancellation of a connecting flight after midnight, and the family ended up sleeping on the floor of the airport in Charlotte. (Here's how to avoid having to do that.) American Airlines did offer the family a hotel in Charlotte, but it was 1 am when they found that out, and with flights rebooked for 7:30am the next morning, they decided it was easier to stay put rather than head to a hotel for just three hours of sleep. The family eventually made it to Florida 26 hours after they were first scheduled to depart New York.
For its part, American Airlines stated that, "We never want to disrupt our customers’ travel plans, and we apologize for the downgrade in aircraft. At times, especially during irregular operations, our operations center will substitute in a different aircraft that may have fewer seats than the original aircraft that was assigned for the flight — we do this instead of canceling the flight. Our team at the airport, and at our operations center, will look for alternate flights for passengers impacted to get them to their destination as quickly as possible. This includes other nonstop flights and the possibility of connections."
Tips to Avoid Being Involuntarily Bumped
1. Fly Airlines That Bump Fewer Passengers
While there is no way to 100% guarantee that you and your family will not be involuntarily bumped, there are steps you can take to reduce the possibility as some airlines bump more passengers than others. For example, from October–December 2018, American Airlines involuntarily bumped 1,573 passengers -- and voluntarily bumped another 20,168. Of course, that's a very small percentage of the more than 33 million passengers they flew during that time, but it's still over 1,500 people impacted. During that same timeframe, Delta flew roughly 1 million more passengers than American and had exactly zero involuntary bumps. Delta had 22,160 voluntary bumps in those three months -- demonstrating they likely just sweetened the deals until they had enough voluntary takers.
2. Check In for Your Flight Online in Advance
Checking in for your flight 24 hours in advance online will give you a leg up on avoiding an involuntary bump. Don't wait until you get to the airport to check in. Typically, those who are bumped are the ones who check in last, even if they had seat assignments tied to their reservation. Set up a reminder on your phone to check in 24 hours in advance.
3. Do Not Purchase a Basic Economy Fare
Purchasing the least expensive fare, known as basic economy, means you are not able to select seats in advance. The airline will assign you a seat before boarding and if the aircraft happens to be overbooked, the system may not be able to find you a seat at that time. Having a designated seat is important to ensure you get on the flight -- though it isn't a fail proof strategy.
4. Have Status
Again, no guarantees, but elite status will hopefully spare you an involuntary bump.
5. Fly First or Business Class
American Airlines' Contract of Carriage states that those flying on paid business and first class fares have higher priority in not being bumped than those in economy.
6. Connect Your Reservation With Other Family Members
If you are flying with other family members (or even a group of friends), make sure to link your reservations in advance if you did not book together by calling the airline. This is especially important if another passenger you are flying with has status. Typically the airline will not split up groups if they can avoid it.
Unaccompanied minors, passengers with physical limitations and other similar situations are also given a higher priority when deciding who gets bumped and who doesn't.
Steps to Take If You Are Involuntarily Bumped
1. Know Your Rights
If you are involuntarily bumped, you may or may not be entitled to compensation. According to the Department of Transportation, the airline is required to compensate you depending on the length of your delay:
- 0- to 1-hour arrival delay: No compensation
- 1- to 2-hour arrival delay: 200% of one-way fare (but no more than $675)
- More than 2-hour arrival delay: 400% of one-way fare (but no more than $1,350)
Make sure to know what you are entitled to and be persistent. In this case, the family was not entitled to this payment because an aircraft downgrade is not an eligible reason for mandatory compensation.
Note: If your ticket does not show a fare (for example, a frequent-flyer award ticket or a ticket issued by a consolidator), your denied-boarding compensation is based on the lowest cash, check or credit card payment charged for a ticket in the same class of service (e.g., coach, first class) on that flight.
2. Ask for Your Compensation in Cash
If you are denied boarding based on a reason that the DOT says entitles you to compensation, you can request that compensation in cash. Many times the airline will automatically hand out an airline voucher, but make it clear you want cash instead unless you prefer a voucher.
3. Be Proactive With Alternative Flight Options
While an airline representative will offer you alternative flight options to get you to your final destination, there might be other options that work better for your family. Pull up all possible flights on the airline you are flying, as well as reciprocity airlines. For example, if you are flying American Airlines, it has reciprocity with Delta and United, which means American can transfer your tickets and put you on a flight with another carrier. (Keep in mind that not all airlines have reciprocity.) Also, make sure to look at alternative airports in your search. Hopefully, you get an agent who exhausts all options, but two heads are better than one. Being able to give them as many alternatives as possible will only help you in the long run.
4. Ask for Hotel Accommodations
Although there is no rule on whether or not the airline has to give you hotel accommodations with an involuntary bump, be persistent and ask for a hotel voucher. When we asked American Airlines about its protocol, we were told that "we will offer a hotel on a case-by-case basis, especially if someone has to remain overnight at a location that is not at their origin."
While being denied boarding is never fun, these tips could help you get over the "bump" in your travel experience. You will also likely improve your situation by booking travel with a card that has built-in travel protections so you have more recourse for reimbursement if things go awry. And remember, as much as you might want to break down and cry or scream, kill them with kindness — you'll have a better chance of success in getting to your final destination as quickly and well compensated as possible.
Jennifer Yellin covers family travel deals for TPG and blogs at Deals We Like. Follow her family’s adventures on Twitter and Instagram.