Rights if Denied Boarding on a US Flight
The US Department of Transportation's
This information is
drawn from the Department of Transportation's very helpful
air traveler consumer rights web site.
of a series on being bumped from flights, see the other
articles in this series listed on the right.
The US government has been
conspicuously unwilling to enshrine many passenger rights into
law, but by happy chance (caused by consumer activist Ralph
Nader being bumped off a flight many decades ago) they have made
an exception for passenger bumping.
As a result, you have formal
rights and the airlines have formal obligations to follow if
they deny you the seat on the flight they first promised.
Here are the details of their
Your Official Rights as per the
Department of Transportation
The obligations of the
airlines to compensate you if they can not fly you on the flight
you are booked on are defined by the Department of
On the DoT's website they
have an excellent section on
rights in general (as insubstantial and vague as they are)
and part of this section specifically
sets out your rights if you're bumped off a flight.
Here it is in its entirety,
slightly reformatted but otherwise unchanged. You might
wish to print off a copy of this and keep it with your travel
documents, just in case you ever need to refer to it at an
As well as reading through
this official 'letter of the law' you should read our discussion
of what this all means in the preceding part four of this
series, 'Being involuntarily denied boarding on your flight'.
Overbooking is not illegal, and most airlines overbook their
scheduled flights to a certain extent in order to compensate for
"no-shows." Passengers are sometimes left behind or "bumped" as
a result. When an oversale occurs, the Department of
Transportation (DOT) requires airlines to ask people who aren't
in a hurry to give up their seats voluntarily, in exchange for
compensation. Those passengers bumped against their will are,
with a few exceptions, entitled to compensation.
Almost any group of airline passengers includes some people with
urgent travel needs and others who may be more concerned about
the cost of their tickets than about getting to their
destination on time. Our rules require airlines to seek out
people who are willing to give up their seats for some
compensation before bumping anyone in- voluntarily.
this works. At the check-in or boarding area, airline employees
will look for volunteers when it appears that the flight has
been oversold. If you're not in a rush to arrive at your next
destination, you can give your reservation back to the airline
in exchange for compensation and a later flight. But before you
do this, you may want to get answers to these important
When is the next flight on which the airline can confirm your
seat? The alternate flight may be just as acceptable to you. On
the other hand, if they offer to put you on standby on another
flight that's full, you could be stranded.
Will the airline provide other amenities such as free meals, a
hotel room, phone calls, or ground transportation? If not, you
might have to spend the money they offer you on food or lodging
while you wait for the next flight.
DOT has not said how much the airline has to give volunteers. This means carriers may negotiate with their passengers for a
mutually acceptable amount of money-or maybe a free trip or
other benefits. Airlines give employees guidelines for
bargaining with passengers, and they may select those volunteers
willing to sell back their reservations for the lowest price.
the airline offers you a free ticket, ask about restrictions. How long is the ticket good for? Is it "blacked out" during
holiday periods when you might want to use it? Can it be used
for international flights? Most importantly, can you make a
reservation, and if so, how far before departure are you
permitted to make it?
DOT requires each airline to give all passengers who are bumped
involuntarily a written statement describing their rights and
explaining how the carrier decides who gets on an oversold
flight and who doesn't. Those travelers who don't get to fly are
frequently entitled to an on-the-spot payment of denied boarding
compensation. The amount depends on the price of their ticket
and the length of the delay :
If you are bumped involuntarily and the airline arranges
substitute transportation that is scheduled to get you to your
final destination (including later connections) within one hour
of your original scheduled arrival time, there is no
If the airline arranges substitute transportation that is
scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two
hours after your original arrival time (between one and four
hours on international flights), the airline must pay you an
amount equal to your one-way fare to your final destination,
with a $400 maximum.
If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to
your destination more than two hours later (four hours
internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute
travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles (200% of
your fare, $800 maximum).
You always get to keep your original ticket and use it on
another flight. If you choose to make your own arrangements, you
can request an "involuntary refund" for the ticket for the
flight you were bumped from. The denied boarding compensation is
essentially a payment for your inconvenience.
Like all rules, however, there are a few conditions and
To be eligible for compensation, you must have a confirmed
reservation. A written confirmation issued by the airline or an
authorized agent or reservation service qualifies you in this
regard even if the airline can't find your reservation in the
computer, as long as you didn't cancel your reservation or miss
a reconfirmation deadline.
You must meet the airline's deadline for buying your ticket. Discount tickets must usually be purchased within a certain
number of days after the reservation was made. Other tickets
normally have to be picked up no later than 30 minutes before
In addition to the ticketing deadline, each airline has a
check-in deadline, which is the amount of time before scheduled
departure that you must present yourself to the airline at the
airport. For domestic flights most carriers require you to be at
the departure gate between 10 minutes and 30 minutes before
scheduled departure, but some deadlines can be an hour or
longer. Check-in deadlines on international flights can be as
much as three hours before scheduled departure time.
airlines may simply require you to be at the ticket/baggage
counter by this time; most, however, require that you get all
the way to the boarding area. If you miss the ticketing or
check-in deadline, you may have lost your reservation and your
right to compensation if the flight is oversold.
As noted above, no compensation is due if the airline arranges
substitute transportation which is scheduled to arrive at your
destination within one hour of your originally scheduled arrival
If the airline must substitute a smaller plane for the one it
originally planned to use, the carrier isn't required to pay
people who are bumped as a result. In addition, on flights using
aircraft with 30 through 60 passenger seats, compensation is not
required if you were bumped due to safety-related aircraft
weight or balance constraints.
The rules do not apply to charter flights, or to scheduled
flights operated with planes that hold fewer than 30 passengers. They don't apply to international flights inbound to the United
States, although some airlines on these routes may follow them
voluntarily. Also, if you are flying between two foreign
cities-from Paris to Rome, for example-these rules will not
apply. The European Community has a rule on bumpings that
occur in an EC country; ask the airline for details, or
When a flight is oversold and there are not enough volunteers,
some airlines bump passengers with the lowest fares first. Once
you have purchased your ticket, the most effective way to reduce
the risk of being bumped is to get to the airport early. For
passengers in the same fare class the last passengers to check
in are usually the first to be bumped, even if they have met the
check-in deadline. Allow extra time; assume that the airport
access road is backed up, the parking lot is full, and there is
a long line at the check-in counter.
However, if you arrive so
early that your airline has another flight to your destination
leaving before the one that you are booked on, either switch to
the earlier flight or don't check your bag until after the first
flight leaves. If you check your bag right away, it might get
put on the earlier flight and remain unattended at your
destination airport for hours.
Airlines may offer free
transportation on future flights in place of a check for denied
boarding compensation. However, if you are bumped involuntarily
you have the right to insist on a check if that is your
preference. Once you cash the check (or accept the free flight),
you will probably lose the right to demand more money from the
airline later on.
However, if being bumped costs you more money
than the airline will pay you at the airport, you can try to
negotiate a higher settlement with their complaint department. If this doesn't work, you usually have 30 days from the date on
the check to decide if you want to accept the amount of the
check. You are always free to decline the check (e.g., not
cash it) and take the airline to court to try to obtain more
The government's denied
boarding regulation spells out the airlines' minimum obligation
to people they bump involuntarily.
Finally, don't be a
"no-show." If you are holding confirmed reservations you
don't plan to use, notify the airline. If you don't, they
will cancel all onward or return reservations on your trip.
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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