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Come Fly With Me, Unless You Get Bumped!

Come Fly With Me, Unless You Get Bumped!

Many airlines overbook flights all the time, working on the assumption that a few passengers will cancel at the last minute, or simply won't turn up. By selling more tickets than seats, they ensure flights are full even when there are no-shows.

This blog discusses the recent United Airlines & Easyjet overbooking stories and where passengers stand if this happens to them.

Airlines are legally allowed to oversell flights - and sometimes assumptions don't work out and they have to bump passengers - and of course, there is a right and a wrong way to do this. Apparently United Airlines bumped 3,765 passengers off flights last year just because it sold more tickets than there were seats on the planes. US airlines bumped 40,000 passengers last year, not counting those who volunteered to give up their seats. The option United Airlines plumped for on April 9th would strike most as the wrong way.

According to the Courier-Journal, after passengers had boarded Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky, the airline discovered that it needed to fly some stand-by employees to Louisville for a flight the following day. When no passengers accepted an offer of $400 to be placed on a later flight, it upped the ante and offered $800 (plus a night in a hotel).

That was enough to tempt two passengers to leave. At that point, rather than raising the price further, the crew randomly selected a pair of travellers, apparently using a computer. The unlucky passengers were told to collect their things and disembark. One man, who claimed to be a doctor with patients to attend to the next day, refused. The airline called for back-up and airport security boarded the plane, and forcibly removed the man to the obvious distress of both him and the other flyers, two of whom recorded the incident on their phones.

Some passengers report that the man was knocked unconscious during the incident, others that he had a bloodied face. Yet United seems unrepentant, apologising only for the fact that it had overbooked the flight, not the use of force that ensued. In a statement, it said:

"Flight 3411 from Chicago to Louisville was overbooked. After our team looked for volunteers, one customer refused to leave the aircraft voluntarily and law enforcement was asked to come to the gate. We apologize for the overbook situation. Further details on the removed customer should be directed to authorities."

Most will think this comment is vague and insincere. So how should an airline do things when it needs to bump a passenger? In such circumstances there should be only one correct course of action: to pay fair compensation to any volunteers willing to rebook onto a later service. And what counts as fair? Let the market decide. If flyers are not tempted by a carrier's first offer, keep raising it until someone bites. If that price is many times the cost of the original ticket, so be it (this would have the happy side effect of forcing airlines to price their overbooking policy properly - it might even encourage a few to drop the process completely.)

United Airlines probably now wishes it had adopted that fair-minded model, and has indeed softened its position in response to the public outcry. The facts about Flight 3411 will continue to emerge but, not for the first time, a carrier will be left wondering whether its approach was worth the damage to its reputation and the continuing ill-feeling its actions have generated.

So what are the rules if this was to happen to you?

Financial compensation for overbooking and cancellations

At overbooking, the airline must first ask for passengers who are willing to give up their seat in exchange for compensation, to be agreed between the airline and passenger. If there are not enough volunteers the airline is obliged to financially compensate those who are denied boarding against their will. If agreement cannot be reached about an appropriate level of compensation most situations are covered by air traffic regulations which do vary according to the departure location - for example, the compensation payable for delayed departure from an EU country is as follows:

  • EUR 250 for all flights of 1500 kilometres or less:
  • EUR 400 for all intra-Community flights of more than 1500 kilometres, and for all other flights between 1500 and 3500 kilometres
  • EUR 600 for all other flights.

The compensation shall be paid in cash, to the passenger's bank account, or by cheque. If the passenger accepts it, compensation may consist of travel vouchers or other services.

When downgraded, e.g. when a passenger receives a seat on the plane corresponding to a lower class of service than that of the reservation, the airline should reimburse between 30 and 75 percent of the ticket price, depending on flight length.

Financial compensation is also paid to passengers of a flight that is cancelled and has not been informed at least two weeks prior to travel. Travellers who are notified within the two weeks, are not entitled to compensation if the airline can offer a re-routing to the destination which is similar to the cancelled flight.

If the flight is cancelled because of extraordinary circumstances, such as security threats, the airline may not pay compensation. Similarly, airlines do have the right to refuse to carry a passenger whose behaviour is likely to threaten the safety or well-being of other passengers (and in fact will have a duty to refuse violent or abusive passengers).

Assistance in the event of overbooking, cancellations and delays

Travellers who are victims of overbooking or cancellations should, in addition to the financial compensation, receive assistance. The right to assistance also applies to passengers who face long delays. Depending on the length of the delay, the right to assistance varies depending on the distance, from at least two hours for short flights to at least four hours for longer.

The right to assistance means that the carrier should, for free, offer:

  • Meals and refreshments in proportion to the waiting time
  • Hotel accommodation for overnight stay if necessary
  • Transport between accommodation and airport
  • Two free telephone calls or to send two telex, fax or e-mail messages.

Enforcing your rights

If you believe that you have a valid complaint against an airline regarding denied boarding, downgrading, cancellation or long delay, you should contact the air carrier that operated the flight, or the tour operator, in the first instance.

If you are unable to resolve the matter direct, please contact us for further advice.

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.

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