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The Color of Money

Flying? Prepare to be bumped

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michelle Singletary
September 24, 2006

If you've flown this past spring and summer, you've probably noticed more packed flights. Hate to tell you this, but with two major holidays approaching -- Thanksgiving and Christmas -- expect more of the same.

Those full flights mean more than just getting stuck with the dreaded middle seat. For airline passengers, they mean a greater chance of getting involuntarily bumped from a flight, continuing an already worrisome trend.

From January to June, the latest period available, 33,513 passengers were forced to give up their seats. That's up 34 percent compared with the 25,041 bumped during the same period a year ago, according to the Department of Transportation's Air Travel Consumer Report.

A lot of the bumping happens because airlines overbook, counting on some folks not making their fight. But when everyone does show up, it can be a turbulent time for passengers and airline personnel. Often the situation can be diffused by people who voluntarily give up their seats, which can include such incentives as a free ticket on a future flight.

Overbooking is not illegal, but the DOT does require airlines to ask for volunteers. How much you get for giving up your seat varies from airline to airline. The DOT does not tell airlines what they must give volunteers to compensate for the missed flight.

Southwest Airlines, which bumped about 5,400 passengers from January to June, offers volunteers the cost of the ticket for the leg of the trip from which they are bumped. The airline also offers a $100 travel credit if volunteers can take the next available flight and $200 for the flight after that.

So what's a passenger to do if you're bumped involuntarily?

The airlines do have to follow certain guidelines required by the Federal Aviation Administration. (You can find information about all your rights as a passenger by going to www.dot.gov. In the search field put ``Fly-Rights.")

If you are forced to give up your seat, here's a summary of some of your rights as outlined in the DOT's consumer guidelines:

  • If the airline can arrange for you to get on another flight that will get you to your final destination (including later connections) within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time, there is no required compensation.

  • If the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after your original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay you an amount equal to your one-way fare to your final destination. Unfortunately, the amount the airline has to pay is capped at $200.

  • If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles. In this case the maximum is $400.

  • You always get to keep your original ticket and use it on another flight. If you decide to make your own alternate travel arrangements, you can ask for a refund on the ticket for the flight you were bumped from.

    Of course, there are exceptions to everything, including compensation for being bumped. You must have a confirmed reservation. Look for an ``OK" on your ticket. You also have to meet the airline's deadline for buying your ticket. Typically, discount tickets must be purchased within a certain number of days after the reservation was made. Other tickets normally have to be picked up no later than 30 minutes before the flight.

    In addition to the ticketing deadline, each airline has a check-in deadline you need to meet. If you want to decrease the chances of being bumped, get to the airport early or check in online as soon as you are allowed, typically 24 hours before the flight. The last passenger to check in is usually the first to be bumped.

    Of course, there are some people who pray for a bumping situation. These seasoned travelers are usually the ones who sprint to the counter when the call goes out for volunteers.

    I love these passengers. I say more power to their penny-pinching sprinting because it lets the rest of us get to our destinations on time.

    Michelle Singletary is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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