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Involuntary Bumping: What to Do If You’re Removed from a Flight

The whole unhappy story about the doctor hauled off a United flight raises the question of what to do if you’re ever caught in a similar situation. Here’s what you need to know about involuntary bumping.

Involuntary Bumping: What Does it Mean?

An airline has a contractual right to remove any traveler from an oversold flight. That’s in each airline’s contract of carriage, and the pilot has full legal authority over the plane and who’s inside it.

“Involuntary” denied boardings, or “bumping,” don’t happen very often: Airlines are pretty good about waving big enough vouchers in front of passengers to get them off the plane voluntarily. In recent years, nine out of 10 boarding bumps are successfully converted from involuntary to voluntary.

In cases of involuntary bumping, the Department of Transportation (DOT) specifies cash penalties and also encourages airlines to offer enough goodies to get the volunteers they need. But, DOT rules require only some combination of voluntary offers and cash compensation. They do not guarantee you will complete your trip.

When an airline can’t get enough volunteers, its contract is not necessarily specific about how it selects which travelers to bump. United’s contract is among the vaguest in the industry. United’s claim of “random” selection is legal, if misguided.

The mistake in the specific case of the forcibly removed doctor—and it was a significant mistake—was that United didn’t ask for volunteers until after the plane was fully loaded. Airlines are supposed to conduct these procedures at the boarding desk, not later. This was a big goof, and fortunately not the usual routine.

Negotiate, Don’t Fight

If you’re on an overbooked flight, you don’t have to accept an airline’s first offer. Instead, negotiate: If the airline offers $400, ask for $800; if it offers $800, go for $1,000 or more, or keep upping the ante until someone else volunteers. Or, maybe ask for 100,000 or more frequent flyer miles.

No matter how bad the aggravation, don’t fight back physically against the authorities. Not only are they likely to be bigger and tougher than you are, they also have the law on their side.

If it looks like you’re going to get off the plane, think about work-arounds creatively. On a short trip such as Chicago-Louisville, for example, you could ask for a big voucher, get off the plane, rent a car, and drive to Louisville in less than five hours.

I never make light of someone who is acting within their “rights.” But airlines also have the legal “right” to remove a traveler from an oversold flight. Don’t try to invite rights where they don’t exist in the case of involuntary bumping; instead, negotiate.

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