What Are Your Rights When an Airline Calls You To Kick You Off Your Flight?

Reader Chris B. contacted the Department of Transportation and got a very clear discussion of this issue.

Sometimes an airline will call you up — several days in advance – and try to move you to another flight. Uusally that’s because the flight you are on is overbooked and they’re trying o handle things before everyone gets to the airport.

Do you have to accept being moved? What rights do you have?

  • Normally in an oversell situation an airline makes offers at the airport to potential volunteers. Sometimes they’ll continually up the offer until they have enough volunteers that will take another flight so that everyone that’s confirmed for the flight gets to fly.
  • If there aren’t enough volunteers (and this can be because the airline doesn’t offer enough compensation) then they have to involuntarily deny boarding to some passengers. And the compensation to the displaced passengers for that is set by government rule.
  • If the airline calls you and asks you to take another flight you may do so but you do not have to agree.
  • The the airline offers you something in advance they might get you to agree.
  • If you still decline, and the airline says you have no choice, then it’s an involuntary denied boarding — and you’re entitled to that compensation, even if it all happens over the phone in advance rather than at the airport.

So how much is the compensation for an involuntary denied boarding?

U.S. Domestic flights.

  • If the airline puts you on another flight that gets you to your destination within an hour of the scheduled arrival time of your original flight, then no compensation.
  • If they’ll get you there in less than two hours, they owe you 200% of the one-way fare of your original flight, up to $650.
  • If they’ll get you there in more than two hours they owe you 400% of the one-way fare of your original flight, up to $1,300.

U.S. departures for international airports.

  • If the airline puts you on another flight that gets you to your destination within an hour of the scheduled arrival time of your original flight, then no compensation.
  • If they’ll get you there in less than four hours, they owe you 200% of the one-way fare of your original flight, up to $650.
  • If they’ll get you there in more than four hours they owe you 400% of the one-way fare of your original flight, up to $1,300.

The rules require cash payments, not airline credits. And this applies to involuntary denied boarding due to an oversell, not a change of equipment or other similar reasons.

It occurs to me that I do not know how the value of the ticket is calculated on an award redemption (‘free’ or reduced fare industry tickets aren’t eligible, but to he best of my knowledge the regulations don’t discuss frequent flyer award redemtpions). So I’ve gone ahead and asked DOT about that.

The Department of Transportation’s correspondence that was forwarded to me reads as follows:

Dear XXXXXXXX:

Sometimes a flight gets to be more overbooked than the carrier had intended for it to be, i.e. somehow the number of reservations that the airline has accepted exceeds the “overgauge” that the carrier had set for that flight. Consequently, the number of overbooked passengers is no longer likely to be offset by the number of projected no-shows, thus making an oversale situation at the airport likely. (Nearly all flights are overbooked, but because of no-shows and the scientific overgauge calculation, comparatively few flights end up being “oversold” at the airport.) When a carrier discovers a flight’s bookings exceed the overgauge for that flight, or when something changes that makes the basis of the overgauge calculation no longer valid, carriers sometimes call passengers before the flight date to ask if they would be willing to move to another flight. They do this in order to minimize disruption at the airport and reroute passengers in a more orderly manner. The airlines call this process “advance reprotection.”

Advance reprotection is not specifically addressed in DOT’s oversale rule. However, we have told carriers that we expect this process to be handled consistent with the procedures in that rule for voluntary and involuntary denied boardings, including compensation. As required in that rule, airlines are expected to solicit volunteers willing to give up their seat for compensation before they bump anyone involuntarily. If they use the advance reprotection process to involuntarily shift someone to another flight, that person has been denied boarding involuntarily and should receive Denied Boarding Compensation.

The difference between compensation for voluntary and involuntary denied boardings (both in an advance reprotection environment and at the airport) is that the amount of involuntary Denied Boarding Compensation is set by the DOT rule, and the carrier must offer it in the form of a check (although airlines are free to offer such passengers the option of a larger amount in the form of a travel voucher, which most carriers do). Compensation for volunteers, on the other hand, is not regulated, because prospective volunteers are free to decline to volunteer if they don’t like the offer. Carriers usually offer a fairly good deal when soliciting volunteers, however, because they prefer to bump passengers voluntarily rather than involuntarily. Involuntary denied boardings usually result in higher compensation, count against the carrier’s published denied-boarding rate, and generate passenger ill will.

All of this assumes that the flight itself ends up operating. No compensation is required when a flight is canceled. We have no similar compensation requirements for passengers affected by delayed and canceled flights because such a mandate could adversely affect safety, by providing carriers an incentive to operate a flight in marginal weather or mechanical conditions in order to avoid the cost of the compensation. (In the case of an oversale there are no mechanical or weather considerations and the flight is going to operate regardless of who gets bumped.)

We hope you find this information helpful.

XXXXXX XXXXX
US Department of Transportation
Transportation Industry Analyst

Update: to be clear when I said the above letter is the DOT correspondence that was forwarded to me, that’s what prompted this post, it is not the response to my query which I’ve just sent. Will be back on that, hopefully I will hear from DOT next week!

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. i read the DOT letter and still don’t understand how the compensation for involuntary denied boarding is calculated for travelers on award tickets…

  2. Hi Gary,

    I am actually interested in a variant of these rules. What about an involuntary downgrade? Say you have PAID for a first class ticket and then downgraded to economy?

    What is your interpretation here?

  3. @Lantean and profan,

    it took me a second read, but I think the letter Gary posted is the one the reader forwarded to him, not what the DoT said about compensation for award tickets. I’m guessing he has not heard back yet on that.

    Perhaps it would help in the post to make that more clear, if that’s correct.

  4. What about schedule changes far out? I was scheduled for an AA flight back from HAwaii. My connection in DFW was moved back by 5 hours. I could cancel for free but by the time the change happened, flights were $500 more than I paid. Any thing the DOT would offer?

  5. I haven’t heard back from DOT yet, the letter is the general one that was forwarded to me (my query JUST went out to DOT)

  6. If the flight is to the European Community their rules apply and may be more generous and are not based on the cost of the airfare, do apply to frequent flyer tickets, and cover many canceled fights.

  7. The guidelines only seem to cover arrival time at your destination – the difference with doing this over the phone days in advance is that they can change your flight to an earlier one.

    I wonder what compensation you would be given if the airline called you a week before the flight and involuntarily changed you from a 2 hour direct flight to a 6 hour, two connection pain in the neck that arrives at nearly the same time.

    According to the guidelines, if the arrivals are within an hour, you get nothing, even though the new iterneratry is clearly worse (for most people).

  8. One of my guys was IDB’d on a flight from the US to middle east., via EU, and delayed 24 hrs. He was given $1300 or so for that, plus a hotel room. UA volunteered this information to him, so good on them.

  9. ” Say you have PAID for a first class ticket and then downgraded to economy? ”

    My understanding from things I’ve read is that the passenger often gets screwed big time on this because the airline compares the walk up economy fare to the 1st class fare that the passenger paid and pays the difference which obviously most of us would consider unfair.

    Hopefully what I said above is wrong and someone knowledgeable can help out.

  10. rich (Arizona) You are right – it has happened to me. I even had it where I received no comp as my bought first class ticket was $500 (one way) and the walk up economy was $700.

  11. My wife I got IDB’d from a Southwest award flight (wife was on a companion pasd) in January. At the airport they insisted the value of our tickets was $100 each because they were award/companion. They issued us $400 each as we were delayed almost one day – no amount of protest made any difference.

    A month later we each got a letter from Southwest explaining that an internal audit had uncovered our situation and included an additional $600ish for me and $900 even for my wife.

    Interesting turn of events…and even more interesting that they apparently valued the companion pass ticket at higher than the award ticket…

  12. There isn’t much of an upper bound on “more than four hours”, is there? What if for some reason (say some destination was having a huge event and was slammed with travelers) they wanted to bump you…for a week? Still just $1300 international? Couldn’t they scam people that way – intentionally oversell flights then “bump” people to a lower demand period (where flights would be cheaper too), and there would be no recourse? Guess what I’m saying is – is there an upper bound to the bumping duration? Pardon my hypotheticals, I’m a newbie with an overactive imagination…

  13. Also, is the $1300 the 400% or the max one way fare which could then be multiplied by four? The wording initially had me reading it as the former, but I since realized it is ambiguous.

  14. What if you are flying internationally into Canada? Same rules apply?
    I am asking because this happened to me, but they only offered a return flight to use at certain times of the year.

  15. As a data point, the impetus of the initial request was to see whether the involuntary denial of boarding rules apply if the airline calls, says they are changing my flight, and I disagree with the bump. I wasn’t as focused on amounts.

    Of course, this would not apply to Delta, since they make changes frequently 🙂

    Thanks for moving this forward with the amounts, Gary . I found the answer interesting.

    If anyone wants to read the rules, it is the DOT 14CFR250.

  16. I got a call from an airline for a flight on which I had booked two paid first class tickets to Maui telling me that they were cancelling my reservation in F, and giving me the options of traveling on that flight in Y, or traveling on a different day or different routing in F. They said my F seats were needed for deadheading pilots, and I had booked the last two seats. The call was months after I booked, and about a month before the flight.

    They offered no compensation and I didn’t think to consider it a IDB. How does the DOT policy apply to this situation?

  17. Carl there are a number of instances in which IDB compensation is not required. I do not know calls in advance of a flight are treated identically to those closer in but what I suspect is that the explanation presented in this post is simplified to a point of being useless.

    One needs to read both the Conditions of Carriage and the applicable DOT regulations together. In general the latter will trump the former but its isn’t that simple because there are circumstances where it might not be clear whether the latter applies or even if either applies. This is the thing lawsuits are made of.

    What I can say is you need to read an understand both sets of documents and the information as presented here just isn’t detailed enough to say anything beyond go look at the rules.

    I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen misinformation about this topic even by people who should know better.

  18. Dont forget EU Regulation 261/2004. For US readers, this regulation would apply if travelling on an EU based carrier to an EU airport or departing from an EU airport

  19. Very interesting … is there also a requirement that they get you there in your booked class of service? As written, it sounds like they could downgrade you, put you on other flights, and as long as you arrive on time, they’re in the clear…

    Also, what if you did not pay a “fare,” but paid miles? Do they owe you a 200%/400% refund of miles?

  20. @Justin, as long as the flight arrives within 1 hour of the original, then no compensation is required. I Carl’s case, if they downgraded him to Y, then no compensation (other than the fare difference); however if he was placed on a flight arriving more than one hour from the original, then it should be considered an IDB.

    14CFR250.6 “(c) The passenger is offered accommodations or is seated in a section of the aircraft other than that specified on the ticket at no extra charge, except that a passenger seated in a section for which a lower fare is charged shall be entitled to an appropriate refund”

  21. As for using miles, the rules still apply:
    14CFR.5
    “(d) The requirements of this section apply to passengers with “zero fare tickets.” The fare paid by these passengers for purposes of calculating denied boarding compensation shall be the lowest cash, check, or credit card payment charged for a ticket in the same class of service on that flight.”

    14CFR.1 Definitions
    “Zero fare ticket means a ticket acquired without a substantial monetary payment such as by using frequent flyer miles or vouchers, or a consolidator ticket obtained after a monetary payment that does not show a fare amount on the ticket. A zero fare ticket does not include free or reduced rate air transportation provided to airline employees and guests.”

  22. @Heels05

    Schedule changes are not grounds for compensation.

    If they do change the schedule of the aircraft thus missing connections and offer you a rebooking option you are not obligated to take that rebooking, you can push for them to rebook you on a flight that fits to your planes.

    Delta did that to me once. I was orginianlly flying from a SE city through CVG. They tried to help by rebooking me on an earlier flight through CVG that turn the flight into a nightmare 2 stop route. I called and told them that their change conflicted with a meeting i was having and they could rebook me using just one change–not two. they found a flight through MSP.

    some airlines may claim an equipment change or a schedule change to get around a denied boaring claim.

  23. Don’t know a lot about the idb rules but I know if you are delayed in EU, they have very different rules. We had weather delay from Dublin to London for a return flight to ATL and the delay caused us to miss the LON-ATL leg, we were given meal vouchers, r/t transportation and a nice hotel for the night and automatically rebooked on the same flight out the next day. I know in the U.S. they aren’t required to do much of anything for weather delays but we were given a nice little card telling us what we were entitled to and they were very nice about it. Wish the U.S. had THOSE kind of rules!

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