Q: I've flown a lot this summer, and I've never seen bigger crowds. On several occasions, I noticed that gate agents asked for volunteers when flights are oversold. I know you can get a free round-trip ticket if you volunteer to give up your seat, but one time, I overhead the gate agent tell a passenger he could get a cash payment because he was bumped. What's that all about?

A: It sounds like you witnessed a relatively rare involuntary bumping vs. the more common voluntary bumping. It's important to know the difference. First, let's look at voluntary bumping. As most frequent fliers know, the Department of Transportation requires airlines to ask for volunteers before denying seats to ticketed passengers. Volunteers are entitled to whatever the airline offers them-usually a free round-trip ticket or a dollar-value certificate to be used for future ticket purchases. When ticket agents have to sweeten the pot to get volunteers, they're empowered to also offer meal vouchers, free long distance phone calls or passes to the airline's airport club.

Airlines Ranked By Number Of Involuntarily Bumped Passengers
January to March 2000
1. Northwest (fewest bumped passengers)
2. Delta
3. Continental
4. American
5. TWA
6. US Airways
7. Alaska
8. United
9. Southwest
10. America West (most bumped passengers)
Source: Department of Transportation, Consumer Report, June 2000

However, there are times when the airline can't find enough passengers willing to volunteer their seats and they must deny boarding to some ticketed passengers. This is one of the few instances when governmental regulations kick in and require airlines to financially compensate those passengers.

If you're involuntarily bumped, you can ask to be booked again on the same airline or on another airline going to the same destination. If this new flight gets you there within an hour of your originally scheduled arrival time, the airline owes you nothing but an apology. But if this flight arrives between one and two hours late, you're entitled to a cash payment equal to the price of your one-way fare, up to a maximum of $200. If you're more than two hours late, you're entitled to twice the value of your one-way ticket, up to a maximum of $400. Many times you can also keep your original ticket for a refund or future use.

Usually the airlines will first try to appease those involuntarily bumped with free tickets. Depending on your situation, a free ticket might be more valuable than cash. But you won't get the cash unless you demand it. Perhaps better for frequent traveler program members is a travel certificate of specific monetary value to apply to future flights on that airline, which should be worth at least the face value of the ticket you're holding. Travel vouchers are better for frequent travelers because you can still earn frequent flier mileage on tickets "bought" with them. Travel on "free" bump tickets doesn't accrue frequent flier miles.

An important note: In order to be protected, you must have checked in on time for your flight-at least 20 minutes before the flight's scheduled departure. If you arrive after this, the airline reserves the right to give your seat away, and you're entitled to no compensation.


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Christopher J. McGinnis is the owner of Travel Skills Group, an Atlanta-based communications and consulting firm specializing in the business travel industry. He comments periodically on trends and issues affecting business travelers on the Weather Channel, CNN and other TV and radio networks. Chris also writes business travel columns and newsletters that appear in a variety of media. His latest book, The Unofficial Business Travelers Pocket Guide (McGraw-Hill), was released in August 1998. For more information, see http://www.travelskills.com.


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.