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
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.