No room on the plane: what happens if you're bumped in Australia?

For any traveller, being bumped from a flight is a frustrating moment. For business travellers with meetings to attend, it can spell disaster.

Being asked to surrender your plane seat is the last thing you want to hear. In Australia you won’t hear "bumped" much anymore. Elsewhere, the compensation helps.

By Lee Mylne

Flights booked and paid for, appointments made in your destination city – but at the departure gate, your best-laid plans go awry when the airline announces the flight is overbooked. Someone is about to be bumped. 

For any traveller, being bumped from a flight is a frustrating moment; for business travellers with meetings to attend, it can spell disaster. 

Yet it doesn’t have to be all bad. Airlines must first ask for volunteers who don’t mind giving up their seat before bumping passengers off an overbooked flight. They also provide compensation to bumped passengers, although these policies differ between airlines and countries. 

What airlines offer bumped passengers will depend on whether they can still get you to your destination within a reasonable time frame. They may simply put you on the next flight, but if there is no later flight, or accommodation is required, some airlines will cover these expenses (including meals); others will offer financial compensation. 

The scientific explanation

Overbooking is a practice based on the fact that there are usually some no-shows for a flight, leaving empty seats. This is most likely to happen on an international flight. 

Many factors determine how many seats an airline will overbook, including the time of day, day of the week and how many seats are available in business or first class (economy might be overbooked, but some lucky passengers might get upgraded in that case).

The last passengers to check in are usually the first to be bumped from a flight, even if they meet the check-in deadline. Getting to the airport early or checking in online can help ensure you keep your seat.

“If we do deny boarding, we try to move them onto the next flight that day... and pay compensation.” Cathy Taylor, Thai Airlines

Flight Centre Travel Group's executive general manager corporate travel, Andrew Flannery, says the practice of overbooking has “virtually disappeared” in Australia’s domestic market, as airlines now run algorithms that search the history of how many people have missed their flight.  

“They have a scientific estimation on what to expect and it’s rare for an Australian passenger to be bumped from a domestic flight,” he says. However airlines in some other countries still use the practice, as evidenced by a highly publicised incident in the US in April 2017.

In that case, United Airlines forcibly removed a passenger who refused to give up his seat for crew members. Video filmed by other passengers sparked an outcry over the man’s treatment and a backlash against overbooking policies. It resulted in United Airlines changing its policies and Contract of Carriage, including increasing to US$10,000 the compensation offered for passengers who voluntarily give up their seats.

Thai Airways airport manager in Sydney, Cathy Taylor, says flights are still overbooked, but not often from Australia. People are more likely to be denied boarding because of issues with tickets, passports or visas, than because a flight is overbooked, she says. 

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“If we do deny boarding, we try to move them on to the next flight that day ... and pay compensation. We would also try to get the passenger on another airline, although if we are full then everyone else usually is too.”

If you’re denied boarding because your airline has oversold an international flight, you may be entitled to compensation in accordance with applicable regulations (for example, in the EU or US), or with the airline’s own policy. Most countries have “denied boarding” compensation regulations, so check with the airline in the countries you’re travelling to or from. 

In the US, these regulations fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Transportation, and provide for up to 400 per cent of the fare (to a maximum of US$1350) if the delay is more than four hours (departing from the US). 

In the EU, passengers entitled to compensation must be on any airline departing from an EU airport, or arriving at an EU airport and operated by an EU airline. Compensation is between €250 and €600 in cash and, as in most countries, is based on the distance of the flight.

The best advice is to read the fine print before you fly, and check in early. 

Read next: How to make airline loyalty programs work for you

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September 2017
September 2017

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