An overbooked flight is when an airline sells more tickets on the plane than there are seats. This is a way to avoid empty seats from no-show passengers or missed connections.
Overbooked might also be referred to as oversold. Airlines utilize this practice to ensure planes are at capacity and they can maximize profit. To determine how many seats to oversell, they use algorithms that attempt to guess how many people might miss the flight based on a number of factors.
Yes, it is legal to overbook flights according to federal law. However, there are rules about how to compensate a passenger if they are bumped from a flight because it was oversold and there were not enough seats for every passenger who showed up.
Overbooking a flight is not bad; it can actually help keep costs for the airline low, which means a more affordable ticket for you. Airlines know that a certain percentage of passengers will “no-show” on every flight. As a result, they sell more tickets than there are seats to guarantee revenue. Of course, if everyone does show up and the flight is oversold, someone will be bumped.
This can be a positive for those with flexible travel schedules, as the airline is likely to offer cash or vouchers for volunteers who are able to take a different.
Often, a volunteer will step forward, but sometimes everyone is unwilling to change their plans and someone is involuntarily bumped.
The US Department of Transportation estimates that fewer than 1 in 10,000 passengers are bumped involuntarily, though the number can be higher over peak holidays. In the US, about 15,000 passengers were involuntarily bumped from flights over the year ending April 2018, according to Money.com. During that time more than 630 million people boarded a flight with one of the eight major US airlines, which puts your odds of being involuntarily bumped at less than one in 42,000. Though according to Vox.com, the DOT says the actual odds are one in 67,000, the lowest rate since 1995.
According to a 2019 article in Money.com, the airlines most likely to involuntarily bump you (based on the number of people bumped by 1 million people boarded from April 2017 through March 2018) is Spirit Airlines, followed by Frontier Airlines, Southwest, and Alaska.
Before involuntarily bumping any passenger from a flight, the US Department of Transportation requires commercial airlines flying 30 passengers or more and originating in the United States to seek volunteers first.
Only after exhausting this option, and if necessary, will they involuntarily bump passengers from an overbooked flight.
Airlines choose to bump passengers based on individual carrier policies. These determine the order in which passengers are bumped, and can be listed in the airline’s contract of carriage.
For example, United Airlines states unaccompanied minors and people with disabilities should be bumped last, while American Airlines will deny boarding based on the order of check-in. They also consider "severe hardships," ticket cost, and status within the carrier's loyalty program.
Delta Air Lines also uses check-in order and loyalty status as determining factors, as well as class fare such as economy or business class. Meaning, those ticketed in basic economy are likely to be bumped first. However, those with disabilities, unaccompanied minors, and members of the military are all protected from such practices.
The best strategy to avoid getting bumped is to check in for your flight online as soon as possible, and arrive at the airport early. If the airline lets you choose your seat at booking, do so. A full, oversold flight may not have seats available at check-in, and those without seat assignments may be more likely to be bumped.
In the US, if an airline involuntarily bumps you from a flight, the US Department of Transportation has rules in place to protect you, as long as you have a confirmed reservation, checked in for your flight on time, and arrived at the departure gate on time.
If the airline arranges an alternative flight that gets you to your final destination within an hour of your original scheduled arrival time, you won’t be compensated. However, if a substitute flight for a US domestic flight will get you to your destination 1-2 hours later than your original landing time, or 1-4 hours internationally, the airline must pay you double the cost of your one-way fare, up to $675.
And if the bump delays you by more than two hours domestically, or over four hours internationally, or if the airline doesn’t make substitute arrangements, the compensation doubles, with a $1,350 ceiling.
You are entitled to demand payment on the spot. Do be aware that rules in the European Union are similar, but vary. And, note that the above only applies when you are involuntarily bumped from a flight, not for delays of any other reason.
Of course, there are some exceptions.
Bumped passengers may not be eligible for compensation in a variety of situations, including the following: