Knowing your rights as an airline passenger

EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The viral video of a United Airlines passenger being forcibly dragged off of a Louisville-bound airplane on Sunday has prompted a lot of questions about oversold flights and consumers’ rights.

“The airlines, for years, have counted on the fact that people may no-show,” explained Matt Balsamo of Travel Leaders in East Greenwich. “I think from a business perspective, they’re hoping that they can fill the seats.”

How many people are bumped from flights?

According the U.S. Department of Transportation, more than 434,000 passengers were voluntarily bumped from flights on domestic airlines in 2016. An additional 40,629 were involuntarily bumped.

“It is in the contract that airlines are able to do that,” Balsamo said. “All of the airlines do this. It’s a common practice.”

Are bumped passengers compensated?

If an airline involuntarily bumps you and isn’t able to get you to your destination within two hours (four hours for international flights) of your originally scheduled arrival, federal regulations require the airline to pay you 400% of the cost of your one-way flight, up to $1,350.

If you’re bumped and the compensation doesn’t cover the costs you incur, you have options, according to the DOT.

Once you cash the check (or accept the free flight), you will probably lose the ability to pursue more money from the airline later on. However, if being bumped costs you more money than the airline will pay you at the airport, you can try to negotiate a higher settlement with their complaint department. If this doesn’t work, you usually have 30 days from the date on the check to decide if you want to accept the amount of the check. You are always free to decline the check (e.g., not cash it) and take the airline to court to try to obtain more compensation.

If you’re involuntarily bumped but make it to your destination within one hour of your originally scheduled arrival, the airline doesn’t owe you any compensation.

Is there anything passengers can do to avoid being bumped?

“It appears that they use different formulas to figure out who’s going to be picked and who’s not,” added Balsamo. “Some of that criteria is based on check-in, so what we tell people is always try to check in online. We also tell people to make sure they’re at the airport in the proper amount of time – usually domestic flights, two hours, international, three hours.”

Balsamo said other factors that may help to determine who’s bumped include a passenger’s itinerary and frequent flyer status.