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Worried About Getting Bumped Off Your Next Flight? Know Your Airline Passenger Rights!

Kaitlin Pitsker, Airline Passenger Rights

With Kaitlin Pitsker, Staff Writer of Kiplinger Personal Finance

What Are Our Airline Passenger Rights Really?

The recent United Airlines public relations fiasco with a viral video of a ticketed passenger, Dr. David Dao, being literally dragged off the plane, made most Americans wake up and wonder: What really are our airline passenger rights?  What are we entitled to if the airline decides they need our seat? To get definitive answers, Steve speaks with Kaitlin Pitsker who follows this for Kiplinger Personal Finance.

As Steve points out, airlines want a paying passenger in every seat when the plane takes off.  They also know, statistically, that a certain number of passengers may cancel their flights at the last minute or just not show up on time.  So it’s pretty common for airlines to sell more tickets for a flight than the number of seats actually available on that plane.  Then, once in a while, when no one cancels or when fewer people cancel than the airline’s statisticians predicted, they scramble to get a few passengers off the plane.  It’s for such situations, which are not so uncommon, that fliers—with pre-purchased, fully paid tickets and assigned seats—need to know their airline passenger rights.

Airlines Are Protected By A Contract Of Carriage

While Kaitlin agrees, she says fliers are bound by what’s called a contract of carriage with the airline.  This contract protects the airline if the flight is delayed or if they need to, perhaps, give you a different seat.

Steve agrees but believes it is one thing to relocate a flier and completely something else to take a ticketed, boarded, seated passenger off a plane and wonders if there is any other product or service where they can arbitrarily take away something that’s already been purchased with cash.

What Are Your Options If The Flight Is Delayed?

Let’s start with flight delays.  Kaitlin says there are two major types of flight delays: the first arises out of mechanical or staffing issues that are within the realm of control of the airline or, at least, their responsibility; and the second is related to weather delays the airline cannot control.  She says passengers are in a better position to demand compensation when the airline is to blame for delays, but not so much when Mother Nature is to blame.

With overbooked seats, the airline first asks for volunteers, and we see this all the time.  Here, airlines start negotiating with passengers with an opening offer of a free round trip ticket or a money voucher of a few hundred dollars for future flights.  Then, depending on the duration of the flight, they start raising their offer.  And these offers often work well for fliers who are flexible and don’t mind the inconvenience.

But, says Kaitlin, before you take up the offer, make sure you get all the details, such as the time of the next flight, whether your seat is confirmed or standby, whether you’d get a hotel for the night, etc.  You may also be able to negotiate a better seat on the next flight, meal vouchers, or some other little bonus for your troubles.

What if the Airline Wants to Bump You Off the Airplane?

Next, Steve wants to know airline passenger rights when they want to rescind a seat that you’ve paid for.  Kaitlin underscores that such seat rescinding situations are rare, but if you’re involuntarily denied boarding, despite having a confirmed reservation, the airline has the option of first getting you to your destination within one hour of your originally scheduled travel, without any other compensation.

If you have to wait between one hour and two hours for a domestic trip or one hour and four hours for international travel, the airline is required to offer you twice the price of your original fare, up to $675.

And beyond that, they’d owe you four times the price of your one-way fare, up to $1,350, as compensation money for your pain.  And, in these cases, airline passenger rights allow them to ask for a check rather than a voucher.

Steve recommends that passengers learn more about their airline passenger rights by checking out the Department of Transportation’s website for rules that are written in plain English and easy to understand and to take a picture of it so they can refer to it if needed.

Click here for the Department of Transportation’s Fly Rights.

Disclosure: The opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily United Capital.  Interviewee is not a representative of United Capital. Investing involves risk and investors should carefully consider their own investment objectives and never rely on any single chart, graph or marketing piece to make decisions.  Content provided is intended for informational purposes only, is not a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and should not be considered tax, legal, investment advice. Please contact your tax, legal, financial professional with questions about your specific needs and circumstances.  The information contained herein was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however their accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. All data are driven from publicly available information and has not been independently verified by United Capital.

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Steve Pomeranz: I’m not sure if I’m statistically correct here but my personal experience and the experience of a lot of my friends this summer has been one of numerous flight delays and requests to give up their seats. Add to this the United Airlines disaster which went viral when Dr. David Dao was forcibly dragged off the plane, ending up in the hospital.

And I began to wonder, what is really going on here, what are our rights and what are we entitled to if the airline decides they need our seat? To get the definitive answer, I’ve invited Kaitlin Pitsker to join me, she follows this for Kiplinger personal finance.

Hey, Kaitlin, welcome to the show.

Kaitlin Pitsker: Thank you for having me.

Steve Pomeranz: First, I want to get some perspective: What is the life from the point of the view of the airline? How do they look at their passengers and this over-booking business?

Kaitlin Pitsker: Well, you’ve really posed an interesting question and one that I think that’s on a lot of people’s minds at this point.

But from the perspective of the airline, they, of course, are interested in having a full flight when that flight departs. They want someone in every seat, a paying customer to keep their bottom line in the positive. So, it’s pretty common for airlines to sell more tickets for a flight than the number of seats that are actually available on that plane, which is why customers are running into what you just described.

Steve Pomeranz: Well, why do they sell more seats? I mean if they have a full flight, why are they overbooking?

Kaitlin Pitsker: Airlines generally bank on at least a few passengers, either changing flights or perhaps missing their flight but, for whatever reason, not making that flight.

And they, of course, run the numbers and make those decisions. But there are scenarios in which more people show up at that gate than there are seats, and that’s when you run into these questions about overbooked flights and what your rights are when there are too many people for that flight.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, so you have the intersection of their data crunching and technology saying to them, well, we know X percentage is going to be empty on average, so, therefore, we’re going to overbook by X percent. Which is fine if we were…you know digits or something, we were not humans with emotions…but now you’re interceding in a person’s life.

You’re making them delay; you’re making them change their plane. And it can create some tension. So for us passengers, we feel like we have something tangible. We have a pre-purchased, fully paid ticket; we have a seat assigned to us. We own this, and it’s like we feel like we’re in a sacred position. Are we, or are we not?

Kaitlin Pitsker: Well, what you described is pretty common. A lot of people say, I’ve booked this ticket, I have a confirmed reservation, I have a seat assignment. But regardless of those things, you are still agreeing to what’s called a contract of carriage. It’s a contract that you have with the airline that allows them to do certain things. It protects them if the flight is delayed or if they need to, perhaps, give you a different seat. Perhaps you’ve been booked in the aisle seat that you really like, but something changes and they need to change your seat assignment. It provides a number of different protections. It’s a contract you can’t get out of, it’s just, kind of, there and most people don’t read it.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, well, there’s one thing to understand that if they move your seat. Now, I guess you feel like, you own that seat because you pre-ordered it. But it’s another thing entirely for them to say, you can’t get on this plane. So, let’s get into that. First of all, I don’t know any other product where they can just kind of arbitrarily take away something that you’ve already purchased with cash.

But, I guess, this is just different, so let’s take a little time to discuss the rights of us weary passengers. Let’s start with flights that are delayed. Now I guess these are outside of the control, in many times, of the airlines. What happens when a flight is delayed?

Kaitlin Pitsker: Well, there’s two types of flight delays or two major types, I should say. Some fall into mechanical or staffing issues that are within the realm of control of the airline or, at least, their responsibility, and then, of course, you have weather or natural related delays and those are kind of the two big categories.

And how passengers are treated and compensated in those situations can certainly vary based on if, say, a crew member doesn’t show up or a crew member is over their allowed time for the day versus if there’s a huge storm that comes in and flights are grounded.

Steve Pomeranz: So, there can be some compensation or arrangements made if the delay is because of staffing rather than weather?  I thought perhaps there was nothing you could do if a flight was delayed.

Kaitlin Pitsker: There are some protections that are not perhaps as robust as most consumers would think that they are, but really your standing is better off, your standing is improved if it’s an airline issue. Perhaps they scheduled poorly. But, in either case, we would be talking about significant delays, not a short period of time.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, that makes sense. All right, so let’s get to the hard part here, which is the overbooked flight. And now a situation arises where a seat needs to be freed up, for whatever reason. What is the first order of business with regards to the airlines?

Kaitlin Pitsker: Right, so the situation you described is fairly common, and usually it’s resolved in this first way that we’ll talk about. The airline will ask for volunteers, this happens. I see it all the time when I travel. It happens pretty frequently. The airline will make an announcement, either at the gate or sometimes even on the website when you’re checking in or on the smartphone app if you’re using that.

Saying we’ve overbooked this flight and we’re looking for volunteers. They’ll start with an opening bid, usually a couple hundred dollars depending on the if it’s a short duration flight, a common flight, they’re going to kind of maybe offer a little bit less. But they’ll present an opening number and see if they can get a few people to volunteer. And personally, I like to look for these offers.

It’s a great way to get a travel voucher if you travel fairly often and can be a little flexible with your travel plans. You might be able to take a future trip for almost nothing out of pocket.

Steve Pomeranz: Sure, sure. But you have to be flexible, I guess that is the key, and it has to be okay for you to be delayed many hours or maybe even overnight?

Kaitlin Pitsker: Well, it depends on the situation. I know for me, a lot of times I see them on flights but the next flight is in an hour or an hour-and-a-half and I say, well, if you want to offer me $150 to hang out for an hour, that’s good return on my money.

Steve Pomeranz: Okay.

Kaitlin Pitsker: But you should always ask when that next flight is that they would get you on because the deal is, they’ll give you that travel voucher and get you on the next flight. But if the next flight is not until morning, you certainly would want to make sure that A, your schedule accommodates that and B, that they’re going to offer you, say, overnight accommodation if you’re not in your hometown or some meal vouchers, something to help sweeten the deal a little bit.

Steve Pomeranz: I think you also want them to offer you a specific seat not a standby on the next flight.

Kaitlin Pitsker: That’s right, talk with them a little bit about that. Talk with the gate agent about exactly what you’re getting, not just the dollar value of that voucher but which flight you would be on, which seat you would have on that flight, that can be a little tricky depending on how far that flight is. But you might be able to negotiate if they really are eager to get a volunteer. You might be able to negotiate a better seat on that flight, maybe with a little extra leg room or some little bonus for your troubles.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, so I think the key takeaway here is that you used the word they’ll offer you a few hundred dollars or travel voucher. It’s an offer. It’s not necessarily engraved in stone. If they’re asking for volunteers and nobody volunteers, and I just was on a flight like that. They must have asked ten times, so, therefore, at least nine out of the ten times nobody came forth. They may be getting a little bit more desperate, so there is a degree of negotiability here, is that right?

Kaitlin Pitsker: That’s right, so in a situation like you described, where they’ve offered numerous times, they’re still not getting the volunteers that they need, airlines will typically start increasing the dollar value of that voucher. I’ve personally seen a couple where, even when I didn’t want to be flexible, I strongly considered it because it can be really lucrative if you’re willing to give a little. But if you decide to step up, if they’ve hit a dollar value where you’re interested, there might be more room for negotiation if they’re really having trouble getting those volunteers. So be polite, but feel free to ask for say meal vouchers if you’re the only volunteer and they’re really struggling or maybe lounge access for the day if you’re going to be hanging out in the airport for several hours.

Steve Pomeranz: There you go, so there are other things you can ask for besides money, I like that if you’re hanging out for hours. You can go to their special lounge. You can maybe get extra room in your seating, some other perk they can give to you as opposed to just pure cash. Now, you mentioned them giving you vouchers. Can you ask for cash and get a check?

Kaitlin Pitsker: In this situation, we’re talking strictly about vouchers. So, I would personally recommend doing this on an airline that you travel at least reasonably often because they do have expiration dates. If you never want to fly that airline again, I probably would not suggest taking the voucher. But this still can be a nice way to travel again in the future for relatively little out of pocket.

Steve Pomeranz: United recently announced that it will offer up to $10,000 in vouchers to customers who volunteer to give up a seat. Delta increased the maximum amount to volunteers to $9,950. Can I get that?

Kaitlin Pitsker: [LAUGH] You know, I wouldn’t hold your breath necessarily, but what they’re trying to do there—particularly after the April incident that you referenced earlier—is give gate agents and the representatives who are there that you’re seeing as a passenger, give them a little bit more power to sweeten the deal, so we don’t face this situation or we face them less often, in which people are denied boarding involuntarily.

Steve Pomeranz: I’m speaking with Kaitlin Pitsker from Kiplinger Personal Finance. Okay, we’ve talked about volunteer. Everything is kind of hunky-dory. Everybody’s still working together here, but when the airline just says your seat is denied, you cannot get on this plane, is that the time to put the gloves on? What must the airline give you in compensation because I know it’s written in the rules?  What are those rules?

Kaitlin Pitsker: So, you again posted a great question. I should first underscore that this is not a common scenario. Most things are resolved with that voluntary bumping system in which people are negotiating a little bit of a deal and, hopefully, everybody walks away happy. But if we get to this point, at least you’re looking at some cash compensation for your troubles.

Steve Pomeranz: Okay, well, what are the rules with regards to that? How much do they have to give you depending on the length of the wait?

Kaitlin Pitsker: Right, so these rules are governed by the Department of Transportation. If you’re involuntarily denied boarding, despite having a confirmed reservation, the airline has the option first of getting you to your destination within one hour of your originally scheduled travel.

If they do that, you’re going to get a sincere apology for your inconvenience but probably not much more because they’re not required to compensate you financially. But once we get little further on, where say you are waiting for more than an hour between. If you’re waiting for between one hour and two hours for domestic trip or one hour and four hours for international travel, the airline is required to offer you twice the price of your original fare, up to $675.

And then, of course, you’re getting to your destination and you have that cash available to you. And if you’re waiting for even longer than that, so it’s more than two hours for a domestic flight or more than four hours for an international flight or the airline doesn’t make alternative arrangements, they can’t get you there for ages and you say forget this, I don’t want to go. They’re going to owe you four times the price of your one-way fare. Up to $1,350.

Steve Pomeranz: Now this is money for your pain because you still have your original ticket and you can use that original ticket to use at a later date, right?

Kaitlin Pitsker: Well, in these situations they would be getting you on a later flight. So in that first example where you get into the city between one or two hours later for a domestic trip, you would not only arrive in your city and hopefully get to go about your trip relatively unscathed, but you would receive twice the price of your original fare, up to $675. So it’s kind of the best of both worlds, and in these situations, you have the option of asking for a check rather than a voucher, which I would certainly recommend.

Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, which is pretty good. So the bottom line is, know your rights. Go to Kiplinger.com and actually just type in know your rights on flights, right?

That’s easy to remember, know your rights on flights. And also there’s a link to the Department of Transportation about what the rules are. And I will say it’s written in very plain English, easy to understand and may be something you want to take a picture of, put it on your phone.

And so if you’re in the airport and you find yourself in this situation, you’ve got the facts right in front of you. Thank you so much, Kaitlin, for joining us, and for filling us in on this very important issue. Thanks a lot.

Kaitlin Pitsker: Thanks for having me.