United Airlines came under fire after a passenger was physically dragged off an airplane after refusing to leave his seat when he was bumped. David Zalubowski AP
United Airlines came under fire after a passenger was physically dragged off an airplane after refusing to leave his seat when he was bumped. David Zalubowski AP

Teresa McUsic

Bumped off an airline flight? Here are your rights

By Teresa McUsic

April 20, 2017 3:09 PM

What happened to 69-year-old physician David Dao on his April 9 United Airlines flight happens more than you might think.

Not the part about him being physically dragged off the plane by authorities. That’s not normal and probably won’t ever happen again — at least not on United.

After first defending his employees, United’s CEO Oscar Munoz quickly reversed course and said that law enforcement will never again be allowed on one of its planes “to remove a booked, paid, seating passenger.”

But being bumped from a full plane to make room for members of a flight crew is all too common. And there’s not much you can do about it.

According to the Air Travel Consumer Report published by the U.S. Department of Transportation, more than 475,000 passengers were bumped in 2016.

Granted, that’s out of 660 million total passengers on U.S. airlines last year, or less than 1 percent. But it’s still a lot of people: an average of 1,301 a day.

You don’t have a right to refuse to get off a plane if commanded to do so. A lot of people don’t realize that.

Paul Hudson, FlyersRights.org

And here’s the distressing part: More than 40,000 of those passengers — 110 people a day on average — were involuntarily denied boarding, meaning they did not offer to take cash, a travel voucher or any other incentive to get off the flight.

Passengers have few rights when they get bumped. But they do have some, thanks to a Supreme Court case back in 1972 involving consumer activist Ralph Nader, who had been bumped off a flight, said Paul Hudson with the group FlyersRights.org.

Nader sued and won, and the Supreme Court ruled that although bumping was constitutional, airlines were required to first check to see if anyone would voluntarily give up their seat in exchange for incentives. Airlines then created policies to compensate volunteers with cash, travel vouchers, hotel stays, meals and other goodies.

But bumping someone involuntarily is a different matter, largely controlled by federal rules.

First, if you are bumped, you have to comply, Hudson said.

“You don’t have a right to refuse to get off a plane if commanded to do so,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize that.”

You do have the right to be compensated for your inconvenience, however.

The first rule, outlined in a DOT pamphlet called “Fly Rights” (find it at www.transportation.gov/airconsumer/fly-rights), states that passengers involuntarily bumped must get a written statement describing their rights and explaining how the carrier chooses who gets bumped.

Such passengers also must be compensated under DOT rules, if your new flight touches down more than an hour after your original arrival time. (If it’s under an hour, no compensation is necessary.)

According to DOT, that compensation is:

▪  200 percent of your one-way fare up to $675, if your arrival time is between one and two hours from your original arrival time.

▪  400 percent of your one-way fare up to $1,350, if your arrival time is more than two hours later (or four hours later on international flights.)

DOT says you also get to keep your original ticket and use it on another flight.

The booted passengers have some requirements as well, however. To be eligible for compensation, you must have a confirmed reservation. You also had to have checked in by the airline’s deadline, typically 10-30 minutes before departure for domestic flights, but maybe sooner.

If you miss the check-in deadline, you could lose both your reservation and your right to compensation if the flight is oversold.

While each airline has its own methods of choosing who gets involuntarily bumped, DOT says some criteria includes those who pay the lowest fares and the last passengers to check in. (With most airlines now offering 24-hour prior check-in online, this becomes a must if you want to avoid getting bumped.) Holidays and other heavy travel times like spring break increase the chance of involuntary bumping, as do periods of typically hazardous weather, such as winter and spring.

On the other hand, airlines generally will not split up a family or bump an unaccompanied minor, and some airlines favor frequent flyer members (another free service that is easy to sign up for online).

Dallas-based Southwest Airlines, which did the most involuntary bumping last year, says in its mission statement that it will not deny boarding to customers who hold a boarding pass, “regardless of fare purchased, status in our frequent flyer program, or for any other reason.” At the same time, it chooses which passengers to bump based on the last to obtain a “boarding position,” with no preference to fares or any particular person.

By contrast, Fort Worth-based American Airlines says in its Conditions of Carriage statement that it usually chooses its involuntarily bumped passengers based on check-in time, but may also consider severe hardships, fare paid and status in its frequent flyer program.

Brett Snyder, editor of Crankyflier.com, said involuntary bumping has actually become less frequent in the last decade.

On his website, Snyder shows that the level of denied boarding has dropped by around 50 percent since 2003. At the same time, airline load factors have grown from an average of 74 percent in 2003 to almost 84 percent today.

“We have much more full aircraft while the deny-boarding rate has gone down,” he said, adding that overbooking is necessary for airlines to keep fares low.

Hudson said the video of Dao being dragged from the United plane and a possible lawsuit has the potential for creating a movement against involuntary bumping that could lead to a new federal law against it, similar to legislation that governs wait times on the tarmac.

“These videos are very powerful,” he said. “Everyone has a camera in their cellphone. It’s very hard to hide it and very easy to post on YouTube. Then when it goes viral, people feel they can relate to it.”

Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net

Passengers bumped in 2016

Airlines

Voluntary

Involuntary

Southwest Air

88,628

14,979

Delta

129,825

1,238

American Airlines

54,259

8,312

Total

434,425

40,629

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation

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