Mary Guernier and her daughter were looking forward to their Tampa vacation last year, but when they arrived at Baltimore/Washington Airport well before their departure time, an AirTran agent informed them that their flight was oversold and that they had been booked on the next flight out—four hours later. After issuing Guernier and her daughter new tickets, the agent handed them flight vouchers worth a few hundred dollars as consolation.
Guernier and her daughter eventually made it to Tampa, but her husband wasn't satisfied with the airline's gesture: "The agent shoved the vouchers under my wife's nose just to get rid of her," William Guernier says. He filed a complaint with the Department of Transportation and received a check from AirTran for $1,165. The compensation—four times the value of the original tickets—is the amount required under tough new rules that were set by the DOT more than a year ago but that Guernier and her daughter were not aware of, and which the agent had failed to mention.
The Guerniers' experience is becoming increasingly common as planes are filled nearly to capacity and alternative flights grow more scarce. Nearly 600,000 passengers with confirmed reservations were left at the boarding gate in 2012 through no fault of their own. Most of these gave up their seats willingly in exchange for cash or travel vouchers, but about 59,000 passengers were involuntarily denied boarding—a 40 percent increase from the previous year. Though they were all due the compensation established by the new rules, a review by Condé Nast Traveler of complaints filed with the DOT revealed that passengers often don't know what they're entitled to—and that airline employees who are supposed to disclose the rules are instead making lowball offers.
It's perfectly legal for airlines to sell more seats than they have, and nearly all do to hedge against no-shows and to ensure that planes fly as full as possible. "They've gotten a lot better at predicting the actual turnout," says Scott Nason, an airline consultant and former top executive for American. But that is small comfort to those whose trips are derailed due to involuntary bumping. "Our plans were ruined," one traveler wrote to the DOT after being bumped from a two-hour flight from New York to Ohio and rebooked on a flight to an airport 200 miles from her destination. Another passenger described having to wait 14 hours at Denver Airport for another flight.
Delta has taken note and come up with a "bid to bump" program, inviting customers to name a price for giving up their seat. But the industry would do well to look at JetBlue and Virgin America, which have virtually no overbooking or bumping problem. JetBlue has never oversold flights: Since virtually all of its tickets are nonrefundable, passengers have a strong incentive to show up. The biggest airlines, however, say they still want to sell refundable fares, which appeal to business travelers.
What's the best way to avoid the bump? First, it helps to know how airlines decide which fliers to boot.
The DOT says that, based on the cases it's seen and the airlines' own customer service policies, those most likely to get bumped fall into the following categories:
- Last to check in
- Paid the lowest fare
- Don’t have an advance seat assignment
Airlines are reluctant to offend their most loyal passengers, so elite members of their frequent-flier programs are probably least likely to be involuntarily bumped. The rest of us need to know our rights.
And remember, before you volunteer to accept an airline's offer of a free ticket in exchange for giving up your seat, be sure to inquire about any restrictions. Are there blackout dates? Can the voucher be used only on a space-available basis? Is it transferable? Does it expire? And ask yourself this question: If a ticket I purchase doesn't guarantee me a seat on the plane, what are the chances that a voucher will?
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