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Doing the bump: Know your rights when you lose your seat
Written by Bill McGee of Consumer Reports
At my seventh birthday party in first grade, ten kids danced around nine chairs until the music stopped. The airline industry engages in a similar game every day, of course, only it uses more sophisticated terms than "musical chairs." Some carriers call it "oversales." And some call it "involuntary denied boardings." But you can just call it being bumped.

We all know flights are more crowded these days; in fact the percentage of occupied airline seats in recent months is at or near an all-time high. And fuller airplanes mean more passengers are being told there isn't enough room on the next flight. That can be particularly tough to hear at this time of year, when holiday schedules leave little room for delayed journeys.

Unfortunately bumping is on the rise, and the latest statistics bear it out. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), during the first nine months of this year, there were about 18,700 more voluntary bumps and, worse yet, about another 6,700 more involuntary bumps, when compared to the same period in 2005. To learn more and to view the monthly results of the DOT's Air Travel Consumer Report (which includes detailed denied boarding data), visit airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/reports/index.htm.

Which airlines are likely to bump? According to the DOT numbers, 1.04 of every 10,000 enplaned passengers got bumped without their consent between January and September. You can be sure the upcoming holiday season will drive that number even higher.

Here's how the numbers broke down for the 18 largest domestic carriers, based on involuntarily bumpings per 10,000 passengers:

  • JetBlue: 0.07
  • Hawaiian: 0.09
  • AirTran: 0.10
  • Frontier: 0.45
  • United: 0.49
  • American: 0.83
  • Northwest: 0.85
  • Southwest: 0.97
  • Average: 1.04
  • US Airways/America West: 1.11
  • SkyWest: 1.11
  • Alaska: 1.18
  • American Eagle: 1.46
  • Mesa: 1.75
  • Delta: 1.81
  • Continental: 1.85
  • ATA: 1.91
  • Comair: 2.76
  • Atlantic Southeast: 4.58

    A few points are worth noting. One is that JetBlue's ranking at the top is no fluke: In recent years the low-cost airline has consistently led all domestic carriers in this category and JetBlue even has gone months at a time without any reported incidents of involuntary bumping. In addition, Delta and Continental have ranked lower than the other major carriers in recent years.

    Learning your rights: You know the drill. The gate area gets crowded; a line of passengers starts snaking past the check-in counter; a supervisor huddles with the agents over the reservations computer; the handheld radios are taken out; and then you brace yourself for those announcements.

    The first announcement may be good news for some passengers. That's when airline agents ask for volunteers to fly on a later flight, and sweeten the pot with vouchers and mileage bonuses. You may choose to opt for such a deal, but remember: Once you accept, you're waiving certain rights and could be bumped again.

    It's the second announcement that could hurt. That's when you're called “by name “to the podium and told you've been denied boarding. Don't turn red and don't bother threatening to sue. Airline attorneys have already worked out the fine print. And “surprise! “it's not in your favor.

    Not surprisingly to those familiar with federal protections for airline passengers, the rules in Europe are much more consumer-friendly than in the United States. The European Union recently revamped its compensation rules for flights departing from EU countries. Previously, passengers were compensated with 150 euros for all flights up to 3,500 km; now it's 250 euros for flights up to 1,500 km and 400 euros for flights from 1,500 to 3,500 km. And whereas before the compensation was 300 euros for all flights longer tan 3,500 km, now it's 600 euros in those cases. In addition, the EU provides unambiguous guidelines for meals and accommodations.

    As for the domestic market, unfortunately our own DOT is neither as clear nor as firm in its policies. You'll have to do some digging on the DOT's website “or your airline's own site “to find the particulars. But the good news is you do have some protections.

    In June 2004, the DOT issued a Report of Passengers Denied Confirmed Space to the largest domestic carriers, and that report was amended in April 2006. While it requires airlines to report all bumped passengers to the DOT, it also clarified that "compensation paid" should include only cash or checks. In other words, in many cases airlines will attempt to offer you a voucher or free ticket, which of course is good for the carrier since it will bring you “and possibly others “back for another flight. But with restrictions such as black-out dates, it may not be good for you. So remember: You have the right to request cash or a check.

    Not all bumps are alike

    There are a couple of things to keep in mind about denied boardings. The DOT mandates that the largest airlines report all cases, with three exceptions: 1) when the passenger is accommodated within one hour of the original flight; 2) when the passenger "fails to comply with ticketing, check-in, or reconfirmation procedures" properly and/or timely; and 3) when an aircraft of small capacity is substituted. This last provision may not seem fair, but rules are rules.

    Also, bumping statistics don't include shuttle services, such as the hourly flights operated by Delta and US Airways on the triangular routes connecting Boston, New York and Washington. The reasoning is simple: No one on a shuttle flight is "bumped" because an extra-section flight can always be rolled out if an airplane fills up. But I can tell you from my experience working as an Operations Control duty manager for the Pan Am Shuttle that theory and practice don't always coalesce.

    Even so, the shuttle exclusion raises a key issue: Not all bumps are equivalent. Getting bumped from a "spoke" airport, an international flight or a route that's not frequently served can be a painful experience. But getting bumped by a carrier with many flight frequencies on a given route usually is not a dire situation, especially if the airline can accommodate you on the next departure.

    Take Southwest, for example. Traditionally, the low-cost carrier has ranked high in bumping passengers yet generates relatively few consumer complaints in the monthly reports filed with the DOT. Sounds like a dichotomy, no? Not really. Southwest is known for saturating a market with multiple flight frequencies and quick turn- arounds, so bumping often means a delay of only an hour or two. Even so, Southwest has improved its bumping percentages recently.

    It's a mixed bag when flying commuter carriers. Obviously the risk of getting bumped is higher on an airplane with fewer seats. But on the other hand, commuters often ply routes with frequent service.

    Tips for doing the bump

    There are some things you can do to help avoid being bumped. There are also some strategies to better deal with the situation if you are bumped. What follows are some tips for the next time an airline wants to take your seat away:

    You may not want to hear it, but here are three words of advice: Early, early, early. Arriving at the airport late, checking in late and arriving at the gate late are all leading indicators that you've just been voted The Passenger Most Likely to be Bumped. Airline employees tell me that checking in early usually reduces the chances you'll get bumped.

    If the airline suggests you call or log on to confirm your reservation, don't forget to do so. Although in many cases that rule has been eliminated, it's still a good idea to confirm, particularly for an international flight.

    The sooner you obtain a boarding pass, the better. If your airline allows you to print it out at home the day before your departure, do so.

    When you have connecting flights, ask about getting boarding passes for all legs if possible.

    Don't throw away any paperwork that's been issued to you, including reservation confirmations, tickets, boarding cards, etc.

    Keep good records. Always record dates, times, airline(s), flight numbers, airports and employee names and/or identification numbers.

    If you do get bumped, it's your right to insist on cash or check compensation; you do not have to accept tickets or vouchers.

    If you're delayed for several hours or even overnight, invoke the airline's Contract of Carriage provisions for providing phone cards, meals, accommodations, etc.

    If you'd like to volunteer to be bumped, consider asking about cash compensation. Also, don't forget to inquire about meals and accommodations if you'll be delayed for a while waiting for your next flight. For once, you're in a position to bargain a little bit with an airline, so make the most of it.

    Whether the bumping is voluntary or not, ask about the status of your checked bags. It's usually problematic when passengers and luggage travel separately.

    Remember: Always stay calm and polite, no matter what.

    If you have a gripe about an airline, file a complaint with the DOT:

    Call 202-366-2220 (TTY 202-366-0511)

    Write to Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75, U.S. Department of Transportation, 400 7th Street, S.W., Washington, D.C., 20590

    Send an email to airconsumer@dot.gov

    Bill McGee, a contributing editor to Consumer Reports and the former editor of Consumer Reports Travel Letter, is an FAA-licensed aircraft dispatcher who worked in airline operations and management for several years.


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