Air travel: what to do in the event of overbooking?

Overbooking is a normal and common practice for airlines, but never a pleasant one for passengers. So what should you do if you find yourself in a situation of overbooking and are unable to board?

Overbooking, a common practice

We’ve already explained at length how overbooking works, so I’ll just give you a quick summary here.

Given that around 5% of passengers never take their flight, for a wide variety of reasons, airlines are allowed to sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane, to ensure that aircraft depart fully occupied.

This practice is totally legal and works well. Sometimes, however, the airline’s forecasts don’t turn out to be accurate, and more people show up for boarding than the aircraft can accommodate, in which case some passengers will be denied boarding.

That’s when it gets interesting.

Passengers in such a situation have different options, depending on the airline operating the flight and the airports of origin and destination.

Overbooking in Europe or with a European airline

In this context, the EU261 regulation on delayed flights applies.

The first thing to know is that the airline is obliged to take you to your destination. They’ll put you on the next available flight, free of charge, even if it means flying you on a partner or competitor airline (less likely unless you have a status on their frequent flyer program and/or are traveling in business…).

It will be responsible for accommodation and meals if necessary, as well as any transport costs to and from the airport.

But you are also eligible for a lump-sum compensation ranging from 250 to 600 euros, depending on the distance of the flight, as detailed in the above-mentioned article.

Be careful! This only applies to flights departing from Europe, regardless of the airline’s nationality, or departing from a non-European country and arriving in Europe if the airline is European.

This works for a Paris-Milan or Paris-Los Angeles flight regardless of the airline, but for a Los-Angeles Paris flight it will work if you fly Air France, not if you fly Delta.

And in other cases?

Let’s take a look at the United States

Overbooking in the USA

Contrary to a persistent rumor, overbooked passengers in the USA have more than just their eyes to cry about. Passengers are entitled to compensation based on their delayed arrival. This is called Denied Bording Compensation (DBC).

Delay on arrivalCompensation
Less than 1 hour0
Between 1 and 2 hours (domestic) or 4 hours (international)200% of one-way fare up to $775
Over 2h (domestic) or 4h (international)400% of one-way fare up to $1550

Compensation must be paid on the day of the incident.

On the other hand, conditions are more restrictive than in Europe, since in the event of a change of equipment or downgrading, for example, you are not eligible for compensation.

There’s also a practice much more common in the USA than in Europe. When a flight is full, volunteers are asked to give up their seat and leave on a later flight, in return for compensation which can sometimes be very attractive. But be aware that if you agree to proceed in this way, you are not entitled to legal compensation.

In all cases, compensation is paid on the spot, in cash or by cheque.

Useful to know

If you’re denied boarding for overbooking, make sure you know your rights and don’t hesitate to ask gate agents, who may just offer you a voucher if you don’t assert your rights.

Image : passenger denied boarding by OPOLJA via Shutterstock

Bertrand Duperrin
Bertrand Duperrin
Compulsive traveler, present in the French #avgeek community since the late 2000s and passionate about (long) travel since his youth, Bertrand Duperrin co-founded Travel Guys with Olivier Delestre in March 2015.

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