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Travel

Know Your Rights on Flights

Airlines are experiencing turbulence over overbooking policies. Here’s what you need to know when your flight is oversold.

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When it comes to air travel, long lines, delays, lost baggage and bumpy flights happen. So do overbooked flights. But no one expects to suffer physical harm when they balk at giving up their seat.

QUIZ: How Well Do You Know Your Rights When Flying?

The airline industry—and United Airlines in particular—is still dealing with the repercussions of the April incident on a United flight from Chicago to Louisville. Several passengers were involuntarily bumped, but one of them, Dr. David Dao, refused to give up his seat. He had to be hospitalized after he was dragged off the plane by airport security. United was slow to apologize, but other airlines were quick to assure passengers that no lawfully seated passengers would be forcibly removed.

How bumping works. Airlines routinely sell more tickets for a flight than the number of seats available. Most travelers who are turned away (but not all) volunteer to give up their seats in exchange for incentives offered by the airline.

Relinquishing your spot on an overbooked flight can be lucrative if your travel plans are flexible and you fly at least a few times a year. An airline’s opening bid typically starts with a seat on the next available flight and a travel voucher for a few hundred dollars—but that figure may climb to lure volunteers as boarding time nears. United recently announced that it will offer up to $10,000 in vouchers to customers who volunteer to give up a seat. Delta has increased the maximum amount volunteers may receive to $9,950 in vouchers.

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You may also be offered meal vouchers and a hotel room if you’ll be delayed overnight. If there aren’t many volunteers, you may be able to negotiate a better offer—maybe a day pass for the lounge or a seat upgrade on your new flight. If too few volunteers step up, the airline must decide who gets bumped. The way airlines make those decisions varies. You can minimize your chances of being bumped if you choose a seat in advance, check in online as soon as you can and arrive at the gate on time.

If you’re involuntarily denied boarding despite a confirmed reservation, the airline must offer an alternative that’s scheduled to deliver you to your destination within one hour of your original arrival time or compensate you according to rules issued by the Department of Transportation. The airline is required to pay you twice the price of your original one-way fare, up to $675, if your arrival is delayed between one and two hours for domestic trips or one and four hours for international travel. If your arrival is delayed by more than two hours on a domestic flight or more than four on an international flight—or the airline doesn’t make alternative arrangements for you—the airline owes you four times the price of your one-way fare, up to $1,350. You also have the right to insist on a check rather than a voucher.

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But you’re on thin ice if you don’t follow the airline’s rules. When you book a flight, you agree to the rules in the airline’s contract of carriage, which can’t be negotiated. “If you do something that offends or upsets them, or fail to follow the directions of the flight crew, you can be denied boarding or removed from the plane,” says Arthur Wolk, a Philadelphia-based aviation lawyer. For more details about your rights, check the Department of Transportation’s consumer guide to air travel.