You’ve arrived at the airport three hours early, checked in your bag, and braved winding security queues to reach the departure gate.
But with your holiday so close you can practically smell the sunscreen, the unthinkable happens. You’re bumped off the flight.
Bumping - also known as ‘denied boarding’ - is a relatively common phenomenon.
If it happens to you, don’t panic. Here’s what to do - and how to maximise your compensation.
How to avoid losing your seat when your flight is overbooked
When a passenger is ‘bumped’ by an airline, the airline has sold more tickets than there are available seats on a plane. This means that not everyone with a ticket can fly.
The most common reason for this is ‘overbooking.’ Airlines regularly book more people onto a flight than there are seats, because many ticketholders don’t make it to check in. They either miss connecting flights, or simply don’t turn up at all.
If everyone does show up for the flight, the airline might have to kick some people off the plane.
Denied boarding also takes place for operational reasons, like when the airline has to use a smaller plane than originally planned.
In these cases, airlines will often bump people who have paid the lowest fare for a flight - so forking out for a business or premium economy ticket is a very reliable way to ensure yourself a seat.
Airlines also might deny boarding to those who check in orboard last- so check in early and make sure you get to the gate on time.
Overbooking: should you accept being bumped?
If you are bumped, EU and UK consumer law guarantee you compensation.
Under EU law - specifically Regulation 261/2004 - airlines must first appeal to passengers to voluntarily give up their seats before forcing anyone off the flight. The UK’s ‘denied boarding regulation’ has the same stipulation.
If a passenger volunteers to be bumped, it’s up to them and the airline to agree on compensation, which could take the form of cash or vouchers.
In addition to the compensation, you’re entitled to a seat on a later flight, or a full refund for your ticket - it’s up to you.
If you want to take the next available flight, the airline must accommodate you while you wait, providing food, drink, and a place to stay.
The promise of compensation is enough to persuade many people to give up their seats. In fact, some have turned getting bumped into a game. Online forums advise travellers on the best airlines to book to deliberately get bumped - and make some cash on the side.
Earlier this year, the American airline Delta had to boot eight passengers off a 90 minute flight between Michigan and Minnesota.
The cost of the flight is roughly $200 (€197) - but Delta staff offered each of the eight passengers $10,000 (€9861) to give up their seats.
What to do if you’re involuntarily bumped
If there aren’t enough volunteers, an airline is legally entitled to refuse some passengers the right to board. This is known as ‘involuntary denied boarding.’
Under the European Regulation EC261 - and the UK denied boarding regulation - the airline must offer the bumped passenger an alternative flight or a full refund of the ticket cost. You are also entitled to compensation alongside this.
EU Regulations apply when:
- Your flight is within the EU, no matter which airline operates it
- Your flight arrives in the EU from outside and is operated by an EU airline
- Your flight departs from the EU, no matter which airline operates it
The amount of compensation you are entitled to depends on the length of your flight and the length of the delay that you suffer.
For example, if your flight is less than 1,500km and the delay is less than two hours, you are entitled to €125. If the flight is over 3,500 km and the delay is more than four hours, you are entitled to €600.
Full details on compensation can be found here.
If you choose a refund over the re-booking option, you are still entitled to additional compensation. For short distance flights, you are entitled to compensation of €250. For medium distance flights - between 1,500km and 3,500km - You are entitled to compensation of €400. For long distance flights - over 3,500km - You are entitled to compensation of €600.
Before voluntarily accepting being bumped, make sure that the compensation you are being offered is greater than the compensation you would receive if you were involuntarily booted.