Know Your Rights If You Are Denied Boarding


Recently, news agencies reported that four airlines had been fined for providing inaccurate information about Involuntarily Denied Boarding (IDB) compensation. The fines were small, ranging from $35,000 at United to $45,000 at American, but it’s better than nothing. The problem is, these were the incidents that the DOT knew about. I’m sure that there were many, many more that went undiscovered. It wasn’t anything nefarious on the part of the airlines. Rather, the misinformation was likely due to gate agent error. But the article does prove one point: You have to know your rights.

IDB versus VDB

Do not pass go, but maybe collect $200;             Photo Credit: Creative Commons

Denial of boarding, or “bumping,” due to an oversale can be either voluntary or involuntary. Airlines routinely oversell flights. There’s nothing illegal about it and the carriers simply count on a certain number of people not showing up. The problem occurs when the airline is wrong and it has sold more seats for a flight than exist.

Before denying boarding to any passenger involuntary, the airline must ask for volunteers. It will offer a credit, gift card or some other compensation to get passengers to volunteer to take another flight. Voluntary denied boarding (VDB) credits can be an excellent way to travel for free. If you have extra time and the airline oversold your flight, see what they will give you to take a different flight. By the way, this is your chance to ask for the moon. They won’t upgrade you, give you meal vouchers, etc. if you don’t ask.

If the airline cannot get enough volunteers, it will turn to IDB. Every airline has a method of determining who gets the bump, and you are particularly at risk if you don’t have a seat assignment. If you are denied boarding, here’s what you need to know:

In the United States*, the airline must give you a written explanation describing your rights and how they determine who gets bumped. You will also get compensation in the form of cash or a check. Don’t let the airline tell you that you are required to take a travel voucher. You aren’t. You can opt for a travel voucher (possibly of a higher denomination than a check would be), but they can’t make you take one.

  • If you are bumped but you get to your destination within an hour of your original arrival time, they don’t owe you anything.
  • If they give you substitute transportation (on another flight or a different airline, for example) that gets you to your destination 1-2 hours late, they must pay you 200% of your one-way fare, up to a maximum of $675. The rule is 1-4 hours for international flights.
  • If you get to your destination two or more hours late (more than four hours internationally), or the airline does not make substitute arrangements, your compensation goes to 400% of the one-way fare, up to a maximum of $1,350.

Just because you didn’t get on your flight, however, doesn’t automatically entitle you to compensation. The following examples are exceptions to the IDB rules:

  • You must have a confirmed reservation. When you pay for your ticket, hold onto your receipt.
  • You must check in and be at the gate on-time. No, if the TSA holds you up for an hour to probe you, it’s not the airline’s fault. If you do not meet the airline’s timeline, you lose your right to compensation.
  • If the carrier substitutes a smaller plane or bumps passengers due to safety concerns on a plane of 30-60 passengers, it does not owe you compensation. Charter flights or planes with fewer than 30 passengers are not covered by the rules.

The entire list of regulations is on the DOT’s website, which is a useful bookmark. Remember, airlines aren’t just allowed to make up rules on the spot, nor eliminate your rights in the contract of carriage (Yes, you are entitled to compensation if the airline damages wheels, handles, etc. on your luggage). But if you don’t know your rights, you may lose out.


*The EU system is more generous and more complicated. For a plain-English explanation, nothing beats Wikipedia for Regulation 216/2004.


  1. KenInEscazu says

    Does Mike know how these rules apply to award tickets? AA recently screwed up my reservation on an award. I booked an economy seat ORD-DTW and was notified by email that I had been upgraded. As an EXP on an anytime award, I thought that might be right. There was recently an announced change in policy regarding elites and upgrades on awards, but I wasn’t sure of the date it was to apply.

    I arrived at ORD over 1.5 hours prior to departure, and the skycap found my reservation, but he couldn’t check me in. He took me inside to an agent who also found my res (he even printed out a fresh copy for me on AA ticket stock), but there were no seats on the flight. Not even my originally booked exit row aisle or a single seat in economy.

    I was put back into economy on the next flight about 2 hours later than scheduled, and my complaint got me an unrelated apology and 7500 miles. The ticket cost me 30,000 miles. Not much of a compensation, IMHO.

    Do I still have any unsettled rights? I feel quite cheated after losing a big part of my afternoon to stand at the counter while several agents and supervisors tried unsuccessfully to resolve it for an hour and a half. It was finally fixed by a call to someone (not sure who) that knew how to get me out of there.

    • Mike Friedman says

      It definitely sounds like you were IDBed. Your flight was clearly confirmed, ticketed, etc.

      According to the DOT, you should still be compensated as if you were on a paid ticket. They state:

      “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.”

      What I don’t know is whether that “lowest cash” fare is the fare as of when you booked the ticket or on the date of the flight. Obviously, the latter is better for you.

      Was there an airplane substitution? That could be one explanation for the seat disappearing. In the case of a smaller plane being substituted, the airline does not owe you anything.

      Did they give you your original 30,000 miles back? If not, that sounds pretty lousy. I might try calling the ExPlat desk one more time but, if you get nowhere, file a complaint with the DOT. The link in the last paragraph of the post will take you to the DOT’s website and, based on the above, there’s nothing in the IDB explanation that would exclude you.

      Let me know how it turns out.

      • KenInEscazu says

        There was no aircraft change. They had simply upgraded me into a seat to which the rules don’t entitle me, and then I lost out on both seats on a completely full flight. Even if they had a seat, the amount of time I was delayed as they tried to figure out what to do with my ticket would have resulted in too little time to make it. I barely made the one that left 2 hours later.

        Thank you VERY much for this valuable information. They gave me 7,500 miles as compensation. I thought it was a lousy offer at the time, and I get mad every time I think about getting 25% of my miles back for a big delay and disappointment. Not to mention my daytime hours lost while I could not work or travel.

        I will most certainly let you know how my further follow up turns out, as I do indeed intend to do so again. I’ll be much better equipped to bargain with them this time around.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *