Travel & Holidays > Guides

If a flight is overbooked, what are your rights as a passenger?

Fred Isaac

Fred Isaac
Apr 11, 2017

By now, you will have all seen the dramatic video of the doctor dragged off a United Airlines flight from Chicago to Kentucky.

If for some reason you haven’t, here it is reported on American news outlets:

The passenger was hauled out of his seat because the flight was intentionally overbooked and airline staff needed to travel.  

The incident has, you won’t be surprised to hear, been a PR-disaster for the United Airlines.

What might shock you, though, is that the practice of overbooking is far from illegal, in fact it’s rampant.

Airlines can remove you from a flight even when you're already seated. 

That being said, it's pretty rare. 

If you've got a story of being bumped off a plane by an airline, share it on A Spokesman Said.

We're all ears. 


Why do airlines overbook flights?

Airlines overbook flights because they expect some people not to turn up on the day.

Overbooking means they can guard against any loss of revenue.

It’s believed as many as 150 tickets are flogged for every 100 available seats, with British Airways admitting it has overbooked around half a million seats in just one year.

24,000 BA customers are ‘bumped’ from their seat every year.


What happens when airlines have to remove passengers?

To start with, airlines will ask if anyone wants to volunteer to give up their seat.

Compensation in the form of a hotel, cash and a seat on the next available flight is usually offered.

Airlines may even offer a return flight to a destination of your choosing.

But if no one opts to give up their seat, the airline can remove paying customers ‘involuntarily’ or deny passengers boarding.

This is what happened to the passenger on the United Airlines flight.

Cabin crew can choose a passenger for removal based on when they booked and how much they paid.

On the United Airlines flight, the passenger was selected at random by a computer.


Do passengers have any rights?

If you’re bumped against your will, you are entitled to cash compensation.

The amount depends on when the alternate flight arrives at your destination.  

If your rescheduled flight arrives within an hour of the original time, no compensation is required.

For delays of between one and two hours – or one and four hours on an international flight-  the airline must fork out twice the amount of the one-way fare to the passenger’s destination, up to $675.  

For delays of over two hours – or four hours for international flights – compensation can be as much as 400% of your one-way ticket, or up to $1350, say the US Department of Transport.

Airlines must present US passengers with a written statement detailing their compensations rights and why they chose them for removal.

If you're entitled to a refund and the airline isn't playing ball, read our guide on what to do next


Why would you volunteer to be bumped?

It might sound illogical, but giving up your seat can be a savvy move.

If you’re not under pressure to arrive at a certain time, you can bag some extra cash.

There’s no set amount the airline has to give you and haggling is pretty casual.

Normally, the airline will offer cash and a hotel room if the flight leaves the next day.

Break down what expenses you will incur as you wait (food, travel to and from the hotel, for example) and submit a claim.

Over 400,000 people gave up their seats on the US’s 12 largest airlines in 2016.


Avoiding getting bumped

Passengers in the cheapest seats are at the biggest risk of being bumped because the compensation the airline will have to pay is substantially lower.

Airlines will also consider how long it will take you to get to your final destination on a later flight.

And they won’t break up families or bump young passengers travelling alone.  

Flights during busy travel periods like school holidays are the most likely to be overbooked.

Bad weather can also lead to overbooking because it forces some flights to be cancelled.


A Spokesman Said offers price comparison in energy, insurance and broadband that could save you hundreds.