Air travel: Getting bumped may get more lucrative
How to avoid getting bumped, and make the most of it if you are.
Air travelers may soon be entitled to more compensation for getting bumped from a flight.
A proposal released by the U.S. Department of Transportation would raise the maximum reimbursement airlines are required to pay travelers involuntarily bumped from overbooked domestic flights to between $650 and $1,300, up from a range of $400 to $800.
An airline's maximum penalty hinges on the price of the ticket for that leg of the trip, and whether the affected passenger was rerouted to their destination between one to two hours of their originally scheduled arrival (or one to four hours for international flights). Travelers rerouted to arrive in less than an hour are not owed compensation.
The proposed fee increases were in line with industry expectations.
The proposed policy, which follows the Transportation Department's recently implemented rule limiting tarmac delays to three hours, would increase the compensation every two years to account for inflation.
Other rules included in the proposal would mandate reimbursements for checked-bag fees if luggage is mishandled; require that passengers be notified in a timely manner of flight delays and schedule changes; allow passengers to make and cancel reservations within 24 hours without penalty; prohibit post-purchase price increases; and force airlines to disclose their total fares, including taxes and fees, in their fare advertisements.
The DOT will collect comments on the proposals for 60 days. Some of the protections -- notably baggage fee reimbursement -- are likely to generate outcry from the airlines, but the involuntarily bumped passenger compensation will almost certainly go through as planned, says Terry Trippler, chief executive of policy-tracker website RulestoKnow.com.
"It's not that significant a change," he says. "Hardly anyone gets the $400 maximum now because they don't have tickets that are worth that much [one way]." (In a statement, Air Transport Association chief executive James C. May said the industry group would evaluate the proposals.)
Still, the higher fees could force some airlines that frequently overbook to re-evaluate their policy.
Overbooking has become a bigger problem since the recession, says Tom Parsons, founder of BestFares.com. During the first quarter of 2010, airlines had a bump rating of 1.73 per 10,000 passengers, up from 1.35 this time last year, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. In all, airlines bumped more than 762,000 passengers last year, the most since 2002. (The BTS does not break down the figure by voluntary and involuntary bumps, but Parsons says the bulk are likely travelers who willingly gave up seats in exchange for travel vouchers.)
In the past, airlines could count on a few no-shows -- usually business travelers and others flying on refundable fares, Parsons says. Now, most travelers are booking the cheapest, nonrefundable fares with steep change fees, which make it expensive to miss the flight. Meanwhile, airlines have cut both plane capacity and flight schedules, creating a domino effect of problems if just one flight is canceled or overbooked, he says.
Any new regulations would likely take effect in 2011, given the 60-day comment period and 120-day notice period after a new rule is handed down. In the meantime, here's how to handle airline bumps:
Minimizing the odds of a bump
Review airline reputations. Some carriers just don't overbook. JetBlue, for example, has a reputation for bumping very few fliers, Trippler says. When deciding among airlines for an important trip, check their bump ratings.
Lock in a seat assignment. "That's what the airline is actually buying back from you when you're bumped," Parsons says. Pick a seat when booking. Travelers who receive notice that they cannot select a seat until check-in should consider that advance notice that the flight is already oversold, he says.
Fly loyally. Another reason to aim for elite frequent-flier status: Members are less likely to get bumped, Trippler says.
Check in early. Many airlines bump passengers who check in last, says George Hobica, founder of fare-tracking site AirfareWatchdog.com. Travelers should check in up to 24 hours before their flight from home to secure a boarding pass with a seat assignment, and then show up at least two hours early. Sometimes airlines that have overbooked will offer early check-ins the opportunity to take an earlier flight, he says.
Volunteering for a bump
Be cautious. Because of airline schedule cutbacks, travelers giving up their seat for a free travel voucher could find themselves stranded for hours. Passengers should make sure the airline is offering a confirmed seat on an upcoming flight. "Priority standby" is a polite way of saying a traveler might not make it aboard, Trippler says.
Negotiate. Airline offers to give up a seat are usually flexible, Parsons says. Instead of a ticket voucher, a bumped passenger may be able to get a little less in cash. Depending on when the next flight is, airlines can also sweeten the deal with seat upgrades, meal and hotel vouchers, or access to the private airline lounge. The DOT's proposed compensation increase would give airlines more incentive to solicit volunteers, he says. (Voluntary bumps don't get the mandated compensation.)
Getting involuntarily bumped
Make an offer. It's perfectly legal for one passenger to offer up their own money to convince another to give up his seat, if not enough volunteers come forward, Hobica says.
Get cash. If a traveler has been involuntarily bumped and is entitled to the DOT-mandated compensation, the airline can offer cash, a check or vouchers. Go for the cash.
Ask about other carriers. Many airlines will rebook passengers on a partner airline if there's one available sooner, Hobica says. They should read the contract of carriage to check their rights. Passengers should call home or use a smart phone to check for other flights while waiting to speak to a gate agent.
Rush to rebook. Travelers should call the airline or browse alternate flights on their smart phones while waiting in line at the gate to be rebooked. They may be able to snag a reservation, or determine their options, Parsons says.
Request extras. Travelers who have been bumped can usually sweet-talk their way into meal and hotel vouchers, flight lounge access or free Wi-Fi.
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