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If you have spent any time at an airport gate, you have likely heard the following announcement: “Flight #XX from City 1 to City 2 is currently in an oversold position. We are seeking volunteers to take a later flight, in return for a $X00 voucher for use on a future flight.” These announcement are so common these days, that I often tune them out. What does it mean to have an “oversold flight”? What are my rights if nobody takes a voucher and I am denied boarding?
As a business practice, airlines routinely over sell the seats on planes. They base this strategy on the knowledge that some passengers will likely miss the flight. To ensure full planes and maximum revenue, over selling seats is a necessary evil. However, this becomes a problem when everyone actually shows up for their scheduled flight!
Uh oh, now the airline is in a pickle! They sold 182 seats on their 179-seat plane, so three people will not be able to board. What is an airline to do…??
Option 1: Offer Voucher to Switch Flights
At this point, the above-referenced announcement happens. The gate agent offers a voucher for a future flight if someone is willing to give up their seat. Vouchers usually start around $200 and go up as the flight departure time gets closer. I’ve seen voucher offers as high as $500. Usually, this approach works, as some people have flexible travel plans. What if it does not work…?
Option 2: Deny Passengers Boarding
After 179 passengers board the plane, there will literally be no more seats. Those three remaining passengers must be denied boarding. This can be a very frustrating situation if you are passengers #180-182! Most often, this happens during high-demand times, like holidays.
Denied Boarding? Know Your Rights!
Brooke found herself in this exact situation on a paid flight, where she had a confirmed ticket. After multiple rounds of voucher offers, with no takers, the agent started the boarding process. However, when Brooke’s zone was called, she was not allowed on the plane. The agent informed her that the flight was oversold and there were no seats left!
The agent stated that Brooke would be re-booked on a flight departing in 15 minutes, connecting in Detroit, and arriving in Kansas City 2.5 hours later than her original flight. For this inconvenience, they offered a $200 voucher. With no additional information, and needing to rush to the next flight, Brooke reluctantly accepted the offer. In this scenario, the gate agent was at fault, because the Contract of Carriage gives passengers specific rights when flights are oversold. (Link is to United, but rights are the same for US carriers.)
When a passenger at a U.S. airport, with a confirmed ticket, is denied boarding due to an oversold flight, the airline must re-accommodate them and provide the following compensation:
- For flights scheduled to reach the destination 1-2 hours late – 200% of the original fare (up to $675)
- For flights scheduled to reach the destination 2+ hours late – 400% of the original fare (up to $1,350)
Award flights follow these rules as well, but compensation is based on the lowest fare paid for a ticket in the same class of service. Agents must offer compensation immediately, in the form of a check, upon denial of boarding. If there is not time to prepare a check, like Brooke’s scenario, the airline must mail compensation within 24 hours.
Knowing your rights in this scenario can be very valuable! After Brooke’s mishap, I researched her rights and followed up with the Airline. After much discussion, they admitted the gate agent’s error and mailed a check for $980 (400% of the original fare).
If you find yourself in this situation, recall your rights as a passenger. Gate agents may be misinformed or even unaware of this requirement from the Contract of Carriage. Calmly and politely assert that you will not accept a voucher, and that you want the compensation you are due. If you know someone who this may help, be sure to share it with them! Cheers!