An overbooked flight can be a blessing. One of the rewards for forfeiting your seat means you can rack up meal coupons and flight vouchers, free drink coupons, free headsets on the next flight, an upgrade to first class or admission into the swanky airline clubs, but generally nobody wanst to be bumped from a flight.
Getting bumped from a flight means you are denied a seat when you have a confirmed reservation and it results from overbooking. Overbooking is the airlines' shameful practice of selling more seats that the airplane holds in order to fill empty seats that results from passengers that don't show up. The more popular a route, the more likely the flight is to be oversold.
Passengers ticketed on flights canceled due to bad weather are not eligible for bumping benefits. The U.S. Department of Transportation requires commercial airlines flying 30 passengers or more and originating in the United States to seek out volunteers before bumping anyone.
Sometimes passengers may also get bumped if an aircraft is overweight due to restrictions that pertain to weather, fuel, airport operations or other factors that have safety in mind. Sometimes airlines also need to make room for crew members to fly to operate another flight.
The Department of Transportation says that if you’re bumped and you can be rebooked to get to your destination within one hour of your original arrival time, the airline doesn’t have to offer you anything.
Airline rules typically state that if you don't arrive at least 15 - 30 minutes before the scheduled departure, you will forfeit your reservation and in most of these cases airlines are not required to compensate you for the missed flight. If you absolutely cannot afford to be bumped from a flight the best bet is to arrive as early as possible for check in. Or, better yet, check in online before you even leave for the airport.
The last passengers to check are typically the ones who find themselves involuntarily bumped. Those check-in times are not just general guidelines because airlines may use them to determine the order in which people are bumped. Some airlines bump passengers who’ve paid the lowest fare.
One bright exception to the overbooking problem came from Southwest Airlines. CEO Gary Kelly announced in March of this year that Southwest will no longer overbook its flights.
There have been recent headline of passengers, sometimes kicking and screaming, getting kicked off planes against their will, but like most of us they have never read the fine print when they book their flight.
Federal regulations do not prevent carriers from selling more seats than a flight can accommodate, but if not enough volunteers are found, the airline has the power to decide who gets bumped off the flight. Carriers spell this out in the “contract of carriage” that customers are bound to when they buy their tickets.
But few fliers ever read that fine print, and such contracts don't always specify a clear order for such situations.
The Department of Transportation does have clear guidance about compensation for persons involuntarily denied boarding, but in the event there are not enough volunteers preference will be given to “Qualified Individuals with Disabilities, unaccompanied minors under the age of 18 years, or minors between the ages of 5 to 15 years who use the unaccompanied minor service ….”
Beyond that, the priority of all other confirmed passengers may be determined based on a passenger’s fare class, itinerary, status of frequent-flier program membership, and the time in which the passenger presents himself for check-in without advanced seat assignment.
The short version is that an airline's Contract of Carriage, which hardly anybody reads, is like most fine print which hardly anybody reads. It give the business more rights than it gives you. You can read, for example, United Airlines Contract of Carriage HERE. Next time you fly, good luck!