Just over a year ago, United Airlines made international headlines for violently forcing a man off of an overbooked flight leaving from Chicago's O'Hare Airport headed for Louisville, Kentucky. The story spread like wildfire on social media, and passengers on the flight were infuriated and flabbergasted by the disturbing occurrence.

The man who was forced off the plane was a doctor. He refused to give up his seat, stating that he had patients he needed to tend to the following day.

This 2017 incident led to an array of questions and concerns about overbooked flights, what passengers' rights are when seats have been double-booked, and what travelers can do if they've opted to take an offering from an airline for an overbooked flight.

The following information provides some insight on why overbookings happen on flights, and what you can do should you find yourself in this sticky situation.

Is it legal for airlines to overbook flights?

If you're wondering whether or not it's even legal for airlines to overbook flights, the answer is, unfortunately, yes.

Though it seems ludicrous for an airline to be able to purposely sell more seats than there are on a plane, the situation actually makes sense from a business perspective.

The truth is that, on almost every flight that takes off around the world, there will be at least one passenger that's a "no show." In order to avoid losses, airlines will overbook flights and, according to NBC News, this is a relatively regular process and policy that passengers agree to when booking a flight, whether they're aware of it or not.

The positive side of this, though, is that unknowingly accepting the consequences of a possible overbooked flight also entails passengers' rights that many travelers are unaware of. According to AirHelp, this agreement made in fine print that most passengers unknowingly agree to is called a contract of carriage, a legal agreement that outlines your rights and compensation options for overbooked flights.

What are my rights on an overbooked flight?

Despite the fact that it is legal for an airline to overbook flights, passengers do have rights if they find themselves in an overbooking pickle.

According to the Department of Transportation's (DOT) Air Travel Consumer Report, "While it is legal for airlines to involuntarily bump passengers from an oversold flight where there are not enough volunteers, it is the airline's responsibility to determine its own fair boarding priorities."

So, what does this mean?

The DOT states that, if an airline is forced to involuntarily bump passengers from a flight, they are required to provide compensation. The minimum required guidelines are as follows:

  • 0 to 1-hour arrival delay: no compensation
  • 1 to 2-hour arrival delay: 200% of one-way fare (with a max of $675)
  • Over 2-hour arrival delay: 400% of one-way fare (with a max of $1,350)

To find out more about flight delay compensation, or to determine whether or not you qualify for flight delay compensation, click here.

Woman holding passport looks at phone
Know your rights when you're on an overbooked flight. Shutterstock / Romrodphoto

What should I do if my flight is overbooked?

If your flight is overbooked, you have a few options:

1. Accepting or volunteering for a 'bump'

You've probably heard of being bumped for a flight, and maybe you or someone you know has even offered to voluntarily bump themselves from a flight. 'Bumping' on a flight means that the airline overbooked seats, and is looking to offer travel vouchers to volunteers that maybe aren't in a rush to reach their destination and are willing to take a later flight.

'Bumping' on flights used to be a common practice; in the early '90s, my parents were bumping masters. As noted, flights tend to be overbooked, and if you arrive at your gate early enough, you can volunteer for a bump before flight attendants even announce that your flight is overbooked.

2. The benefits of being 'bumped' on an overbooked flight

The benefits of being bumped on an overbooked flight are that travelers can essentially get a free trip out of the deal, or bargain for more than the airline is offering.

If, unlike Dr. David Dao who had sick patients to attend to the following day, you aren't in any rush to reach your destination, you could receive travel vouchers for flights, hotels, car rentals, and even nearby restaurants. Travelers can implicitly receive a completely compensated vacation if volunteering to be bumped on an overbooked flight.

Furthermore, if you don't like what the airline is offering, you can bargain with them for a better deal. Chances are, airlines will be willing to offer you more, rather than reverting to involuntarily kicking passengers off of a plane.

Don't always take the first offer from an airline during overbooked flights. Flickr / Kai Hendry

Alternatives to accepting a 'bump' offering from an airline

While accepting an offer from an airline for an overbooked flight may sound like a solid deal, you may want to reconsider your options. Why? Because the airline likely owes you much more than what they're offering in a travel voucher.

As described above, passengers can receive up to $1,350 in cash if their flight arrival time is delayed by more than two hours. With this money, you can say sayonara to the offered travel voucher and plan a subsequent trip on your own, or use this money for something else entirely.

As it turns out, getting bumped from a flight may not be the worst thing -- so long as you're not in a rush. We hope this article helps you deal with overbooking if you ever find yourself without a seat when the music stops.

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