Reduce Your Chances of Being Bumped
Here are a baker's dozen (13)
strategies to help you avoid being left behind
Maybe making your
flight is so important that you'll even offer to sit on the
suggestions below will get you a more comfortable
seat inside the plane.
of a series on being bumped from flights, see the other
articles in this series listed on the right.
Just because the airline has
ended up needing to refuse boarding to one (or even ten)
passengers doesn't mean you have to be one of the passengers who
then suffer the inconvenience of a missed flight.
Use the information in these
thirteen suggested strategies to minimize your
chances of being bumped in the first place, and to maximize your
chances of being restored to your flight if you're threatened
with being bumped.
Some Flights Are More Likely to
Have Problems Than Others
There is no published data
to allow us to accurately understand which flights are more
likely to be overbooked and with some passengers forced to take
But common sense suggests
that some flights will be more likely to have problems
than others - not so much due to the airlines guessing
consistently wrong, but rather because when overbooking does
become a problem, the airline finds it harder to get volunteers.
People will willingly
volunteer if they are offered fair/generous compensation, and if
the later flight offered by the airline isn't too much later.
So if an airline has, say, two flights to the same destination,
one at 7am and another at 9am, it is not much of a hardship to
ask people to arrive two hours later, and so, with a reasonably
generous offer, people are likely to volunteer in this case.
But if the airline has
problems on a flight at, say, 3pm and doesn't have any more
flights until the next day, asking people to lose potentially
half a day or more of their travels will be a more difficult
request, and will probably result in fewer volunteers.
Similarly, a flight in to an
airline's major hub is more likely to have volunteers than a
flight nonstop to a specific destination, because the hub flight
is more likely to have other flights to that hub meaning that,
for at least some passengers, there will still be easy ways to
get to where they want to go.
Weather Related Issues
If you are traveling in the
winter, you should attempt to avoid flights through airports that
are notorious for being susceptible to weather problems.
These tend to be airports in the midwest and east coast.
A related strategy is to try
and avoid connecting flights, seeking out nonstop flights, so as
to avoid the added vulnerabilities in the hub airport, unless it
is a hub airport well away from weather worries.
For example, if flying from
coast to coast, if you had a choice of hubbing through Chicago or
Atlanta, it would be better to go through Atlanta, even if the
total travel time is longer, because Atlanta is generally more
weather-resilient than Chicago.
When to Start Worrying
It is relatively common to
find that you have booked a flight but can't get a seat
assignment at the time you book the flight. All airlines
hold back some seats and only allow some/most of the seats on
each flight to be pre-assigned.
Plus, of course, with a
perhaps 50% oversell rate on your flight, some people won't be
able to get seat assignments anyway because the airline is still
waiting to see who will turn up for the flight and who won't.
Not getting your seat
assignment when you buy your ticket is therefore no cause for
But if you still don't get a
seat assignment if doing an advance checkin perhaps 24 hours
prior to flight departure, your level of anxiety can justifiably
go up a notch or two. At this point the airline is
releasing more seats and is starting to get a clearer picture of
who is actually going to be traveling and who won't be
When you actually get to the
airport, if you haven't already got a seat assignment, you then
really should hope to be given one as soon as you check in,
either in the departures hall when checking bags, or at the gate
upon going through security. If you don't get a seat
assignment then, you should start to worry and start deploying
the strategies 7 - 10 below.
Not getting a seat
assignment at this point does not mean you'll be bumped, but it
means you're on the 'possibly might be bumped' list. The
airline still doesn't know how many people who have been earlier
assigned seats - either when first booking, or when doing an
online checkin a day prior - will actually turn up for the
flight. But it does mean that the airline has run out of
assignable seats, and you're now having to hope that enough
people will fail to turn up for their flight as to mean that
enough seats will become available for you and all the people
ahead of you on the list of people waiting for seat assignments.
If you see the sign at the
gate calling for volunteers, and/or if the gate agent makes
announcements asking people to volunteer, then you know that for
sure there's a problem with the flight. It is perfectly
fair to enquire as to how many people have checked in, how many
unchecked-in seats remain to be assigned, and where you are on
the list of people waiting to get a seat assignment, so you can
understand yourself what your chances are of being boarded.
Ten Ways to Reduce Your Chance of
Being Involuntarily Bumped
If you are in a 'must
travel' situation, there are a few things you can do to reduce
your very low chance of being bumped (and do keep in mind that
very few people suffer from involuntary bumping, so don't let
concerns about this rule your travel planning).
1. Choose an airline
with lots of flights to your destination
Choose an airline
with plenty of flights to where you're traveling. This
gives the airline more flexibility and greater ease in
encouraging people to take a later flight if/when they have an
It means there will be more
people willing to volunteer, reducing the need for involuntary
bumping, and it also means if you are bumped, your delay will
hopefully be less than it otherwise would be.
2. Avoid the last flight
of the day
Second, try and avoid the
last flight of the day - because missing this flight, with the
need for an overnight stay prior to flying out - will have a
greater inconvenience that may discourage people from
volunteering to be bumped.
And, of course, it also
means a greater inconvenience to you if you do get bumped off
3. Fly with an airline
you have a (hopefully elite) frequent flier status with
Try and concentrate
your flying with an airline sufficiently as to qualify for their
elite level frequent flier program.
When the airline has to
bump, it first bumps 'unknown' travelers, and only goes after
loyal frequent fliers after running out of unknown travelers.
If you get elite status, that is best, but even being a regular
frequent flier member, with your membership number in your
reservation, will give you a bit of extra negotiating power and
reduce your chances of being bumped to start with.
4. More expensive fares
are less likely to be bumped
Consider paying a
bit more for a higher costing ticket. Airlines typically
bump the passengers who have paid least for their tickets first,
giving preference to allowing passengers who have paid more to
be allowed on the flight.
But also keep in mind that
if the flight you want has no discounted fares remaining, that
might mean that the airline is already heavily overselling the
flight, which might slightly increase your risk.
Look for a flight that still
has the lowest fares available, but choose a slightly higher
fare if you're in an essential 'must travel' situation (and
can't also use other priority-boosting things such as being an
elite frequent flier).
5. Don't break any
airline checkin rules
Arrive at the airport
sufficiently early and be sure to observe all the airline's requirements for
check-in timings, so as not to give the airline any 'get out of
jail free' excuse to bump you without them incurring any penalty
or needing to categorize you as a bumped passenger.
Airlines will mercilessly
bump people who don't check in on time or in any other way fail
to meet their procedural requirements, because in such cases
they don't have to report such bumps officially, and also they
then don't need to pay you compensation.
If a flight is not going to
leave full, you might be able to check in late, but if the
flight is full and the airline is looking for volunteers, you'll
be in trouble.
6. Check in early to get
higher up the waiting list
Don't just check in shortly
prior to the airline's deadlines. Get to the airport
earlier than normal, because an airline tends to also prioritize
passengers based on when they check in.
If you check in
before someone else, then all other things being reasonably
equal, you'll be higher up the list of people hoping to get a
seat on the flight.
7. Get a lounge agent to
If you find yourself waiting
for your flight, if you've checked in, and still don't have a
seat assigned, then if you belong to the
airline's lounge program, go to the lounge and ask the agents in
the lounge if they can get you a seat assignment, or - failing
that - to at least get you a higher priority on the waiting list
These agents may have extra
privileges and powers to improve your priority/status on the
flight, and they will treat you more positively than a harried
8. Use your Elite
frequent flier reservation service
If you are in the situation
mentioned in #7 and not a lounge member (or if the lounge agent
couldn't help) and if you are an
elite frequent flier with the airline, call your elite frequent flier reservation
number and ask the reservationist there for assistance and help.
9. Can your company or
travel agent help
Again, if scenario #7
applies and you've already tried the suggestions in that
scenario and scenario #8, and if your company has a
direct relationship with the airline, or if the travel agent you
booked your travel with has a good relationship with the
airline, have them call their 'special service desk' number to
help get your seat on the flight confirmed.
10. Don't give in, and
try to positively negotiate a place on the flight
If you are told
that you may be bumped, don't just passively accept that without
complaint. Ask - politely and positively - for the gate
agent to reconsider their decision.
Tell them 'I know you have some discretion in who you choose to bump and not bump,
and I know most of the people here are not going to be
bumped. I would ask you to choose to confirm me a seat,
because (and then refer to as many of the preceding points as
possible to explain why you should be given preferential
treatment compared to other passengers).
If you are connecting to
another flight, and being bumped would cause you to miss your
connection, you should tell them about that, too. They
probably already know that, if the connecting flight is operated
by themselves, but don't assume they've carefully checked this,
and if it is a flight on a different airline, they probably
don't already know this, and that might encourage them to allow
you to fly, rather than cause a series of increasingly worse and
worse problems to unfold.
11. Choose the 'better'
Selectively pick and choose
airlines with lower rates of bumping. Within the US, your
best choice is Jetblue because they never oversell their
DoT reports to see which airlines have the highest and
lowest rates of bumping to guide you to the safest airline
12. Offer to accept any
If you've ever watched gate
agents working a full flight, you'll know that the last few
minutes prior to the jetway door being closed get totally
chaotic and hectic. Remarkably, no matter what degree of
computerization is involved in the boarding process, there
always seem to be last minute confusions about how many people
have actually boarded the flight, and you'll see gate agents
sorting through messes of collected boarding passes and ticket
copies, and maybe even an agent will go onto the plane to
physically count the people on board.
Wait until what you sense to
be a minute or two prior to when they'll close the jetway door,
then go up to a gate agent and say 'Can I board the flight?
I'll take any open seat; there's no need to give me a seat
assignment; and I only have this carry-on luggage' (if
applicable, or 'and my luggage is already on the plane if
Sometimes you'll find the
gate agent will then allow you to board. Take the first
empty seat you see, and count yourself as lucky!
13. Dress for success
Although the days of people
dressing up in their best Sunday suits and dresses for an
ordinary airline flight are long gone, some of this past history
still lingers, particularly in the minds of the airline staff
you'll encounter at the airport.
For example, even now, when
airline staff and other industry insiders are traveling on
reduced rate or free tickets, they are generally expected to
observe a dress code that requires them to dress slightly better
than perhaps most of the other people on the flight will dress.
It used to be, when I was traveling on free first class
international tickets, I was always expected to wear a business
suit and tie, and this became rather ridiculous because the
'real' first class passengers would dress in casual comfortable
clothes for the long journey, while those of us on free
industry/staff tickets would be wearing the suits and ties.
Anyway, you can use this to
your advantage. Some readers have reported they've felt
they've been unfairly singled out to be bumped off flights due
to being more casually dressed than others, while perceiving
others to have been allowed to fly perhaps due to looking like
'more important' passengers.
There's no need to
overdress, but if you leave the beach shorts and flip flops in
your suitcase, that might make a bit of extra difference.
of a series on being bumped from flights, see the other
articles in this series listed on the top right.
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17 Jul 2009, last update
19 Dec 2013
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