The US Department of Transportation has just increased the maximum compensation airlines are required to pay to passengers they bump off flights, but these new limits do not appear in print in many places yet (perhaps because they don’t go into effect until 25 August 2015). Here’s the information you need – about the new limits, and about compensation for being bumped off flights in general.
The quick summary is that if an airline is unable to accommodate you on a flight you are holding a confirmed reservation for, and if the alternate arrangements it makes to get you to your destination will delay your arrival by more than one hour, it is required to pay you compensation.
If the delay in arriving is more than two hours, it must pay you four times the amount you paid for the delayed flights; if the delay is between one and two hours, it must pay you two times the cost of the delayed flights. There is a limit to how much the airline must pay – formerly this was $1300 or $650, now it is increasing to $1350 or $675. The airline is required to pay this to you in cash (or check) – you can accept travel vouchers instead, but you can also insist on ‘real money’ if you prefer.
As always, of course, there’s some fine print you need to be aware of.
Do You Qualify?
First, to be eligible for compensation, you need a confirmed reservation on the flight and to have checked in prior to the cutoff time for checking in.
Second, there’s a loophole for the airlines – compensation is not payable if you were to fly on a small (less than 30 passenger) plane. It is also not payable if the plane holds 30 – 60 passengers and you were offloaded for safety related aircraft weight and balance reasons.
There’s one more requirement. You have to be involuntarily denied boarding. If you volunteer to take a later flight, that’s a different scenario, which leads to :
Voluntary or Involuntary Denied Boarding?
As you probably know, the airlines attempt to avoid these penalty provisions, and also attempt to be fair, by calling for volunteers first – offering bribes to passengers to voluntarily miss the overfull flight and take a later flight instead. There are no rules associated with this – the airlines can offer as much or as little of a bribe as they wish, and the bribe can be in any form they choose to offer.
If you choose to accept their offer and so you are a volunteer, you are not covered by these penalty provisions.
The subject of how much of a bribe to hold out for is complex and perhaps the best thing is to note that ‘market forces apply’. If there’s a rush of people offering to take a later flight, the airline won’t offer as much compensation as they would if the later flight is substantially later and too few people are volunteering.
It would seem that the airline would not want to offer more than the official penalty limits to get volunteers, thereby setting a maximum level of ‘bribe’ to expect, but that’s not quite correct. All airlines would prefer to avoid having to report officially denying boarding to non-volunteers to the DoT, and they’d also prefer to have all their passengers more generally contented than uncontented, and in particular, they’d much rather offer non-cash incentives to volunteers (ie travel vouchers and free upgrades) than to have to actually shell out ‘real’ cash.
So, if the ‘market forces’ show that too few people are volunteering, you could realistically expect to get more compensation as a volunteer than you would as an officially bumped passenger.
Generally, the longer the delay, the more compensation you can ask for. The airline will start off by offering something to volunteers – maybe a $200 travel voucher, perhaps. But if you sense they’re getting desperate (ie, they’ve called a couple of times for volunteers and still are hoping to get more volunteers) then there’s no reason why you can’t say to them ‘I’ll volunteer, but I’d want a $400 travel voucher, not a $200 voucher’.
You can also ask for some bonus miles to be added to your account or an upgrade to first class, but if the next flight is already full in first class, you would then have to decide – would you rather wait for an even later flight in first class, or take the next flight in any class?
We suggest keeping it simple – get the highest value travel voucher you can, and ask for space available upgrading to the best available seat in any category on the replacement flight.
You can also ask to be shifted to fly on another carrier if they are operating a flight sooner than the one being offered by your airline, but this may or may not be acceptable.
Calculating Your Compensation
If you are officially involuntarily denied boarding and qualify for compensation, you need to know how much that compensation should be.
Look on your ticket to see what price you paid for the delayed flight or flights. Multiply that by either two (for a 1 – 2 hour delay) or four (more than 2 hour delay) and that’s the amount the airline must reimburse/compensate you, up to either the $675 or $1350 limit.
You could negotiate with the airline and say ‘it seems you are required to pay me $528, I’d be willing to accept either a $528 check right now or a $750 travel voucher if you’d prefer’. Perhaps they might give you a higher value travel voucher (which costs them nothing).
Note that in addition to this compensation, the airline is still obliged to fly you on to your destination.
There’s a special case that applies if you are flying on a ‘free’ or award type ticket, or perhaps a wholesale/consolidator ticket that doesn’t show a fare. In those cases, you are still entitled for compensation, and the rate is calculated as being the lowest rate applicable to the cabin you are traveling in and which was paid by any other passenger.
How do you know what that rate is/was? Well, you don’t, do you, so you’re stuck and have little choice but to trust the airline in that case. You can probably have some sort of understanding for the likely cost, and if the airline’s number is close to that, best to just accept it rather than argue endlessly.
Problems and ‘The Letter of the Law’
The airline is also obliged to give you a written notification of your rights and their obligations when they bump you off a flight involuntarily.
If you start to have any problems, first ask why you haven’t already been given that document (assuming you haven’t) and ask for that document.
Airlines have been fined by the Dept of Transportation in the past for not having that document available, or for giving you an out of date one. Once you have the airline’s advice note, check to make sure it shows the appropriate compensation levels ($650/$1300 until 24 Aug, $675/$1350 subsequently) – if it doesn’t, that’s given you a bargaining lever, when escalating your complaint, either at the airport or elsewhere – ‘first you didn’t give me the advice of my rights, as you are required to, and then when you did, it was incomplete/misleading/out-of-date’ sort of thing.
The actual law (to be precise, regulations) can be found in the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 14, Chapter II, Subchapter A, Part 250.
Note that at the time of writing this article (2 July 2015) the CFR had not yet been updated to the new penalty maximums. Those are published here and go into effect on 25 August 2015.