Do you do the bump? Would you rather not?

If you fly in the United States — barring access to a private jet — you’re at risk of doing everything right but still not getting on a plane.

You’ve heard of bumping (airlines call it “involuntarily denied boarding”). Here’s a primer on what it is, how to avoid it and what to ask for if it does happen to you:

Why it happens: Because it can. U.S.-based airlines routinely sell tickets to more passengers than a flight will hold. Why? Because there’s no money in flying an empty seat. The airlines, with advice from in-house math wizards who run probability spells or some such, are gambling that X number of people will change their plans, take an earlier flight, fall ill, call off the honeymoon or otherwise not arrive to claim their seat. When the wizards are wrong about what number of travelers X represents, someone’s getting left behind.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. In the European Union, for instance, tough laws keeps those problems to a minimum.

How do you know it’s going to happen? The first indication a traveler might have that something’s amiss is during online check-in. If you get a message like “seats to be assigned at gate” or “see agent,” it’s time to worry. But often, there’s just no way for a casual flier to see an oversold flight coming.

At the airport, though, the signs aren’t subtle: a crowded gate area, a knot of passengers waiting to speak with a gate agent, a long standby list, announcements asking for volunteers to wait for another flight and even (silver lining alert!) seeing routine coach passengers getting upgrades to empty first-class seats.

What happens next: An airline with an oversold flight is federally required to ask for volunteers to give up their seats before bumping people. It should offer compensation to volunteers — usually travel vouchers. But frequent fliers say they often ask for, and get, cash. Vouchers are fine, but often have restrictions including expiration dates. Cash doesn’t.

If the airline has to start bumping non-volunteers, there are federal rules that have to be followed. Among them:

  • If you will still get to your destination or stopover within an hour of the original schedule, you get nothing (but ask anyway — you might get a perk out of it).
  • If they can get you there within two hours of time planned, the airline has to pay you 200 percent of your fare (to your destination, not round trip), up to $650.
  • If you’re going to be more than two hours late, it goes up to 400 percent of the fare, capped at $1,300.
  • The airline is allowed to offer vouchers instead of cash. In this case, you don’t have to accept them — you can demand cash.

The fine print: The carrier doesn’t owe you a thing if you don’t comply with its contract of carriage, so look it up on the airline website to be sure. It doesn’t owe you a thing if it’s using a smaller plane than planned because the larger one is dangerously broken. It doesn’t owe you anything if you’re ticketed on a plane with 60 seats or fewer and you’re bumped because the flight is overweight or unbalanced.

How to minimize your risk: Airlines are federally required to comply with their own policies about who gets bumped first. If you fly the same airline a lot, it might pay to learn its rules. But in general, taking these steps will help minimize the chances of getting bumped:

  • Check in early: Online check-in opens 24 hours before your flight. The later you check in, the higher your chances of getting bumped.
  • Don’t buy rock-bottom bargain tickets: (Disclosure, I don’t follow this advice.) Airlines are allowed to consider ticket price in their bumping decisions.
  • Get a seat assignment: If you don’t have an assigned seat after online check-in, try to get one at the airport. That means being early — your goal is to be the first one to ask the gate agent for a seat assignment.
  • Have status: Frequent flier status, that is. Airlines are alsoallowed to factor that in, so the more miles you fly on a certain airline, the less likely it is to anger you. If all else fails, try to just enroll in the frequent flier program of every airline you fly. It won’t matter if you’re up against a SuperPlatinum Diamond member, but it will if the choice is between you and someone whose name isn’t even in their computer system.
  • Be nice: When things go wrong at an airport, people’s nerves get short. Be the passenger who is engaged and pleasant with the gate agents, not the one who’s yelling or sitting quietly and just hoping. The gate agents hold your fate in their hands — give them a reason to let the breaks fall your way.
Get travel news daily at www.sctimes.com/travel, on Twitter @LisaSSchwarz, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sctimeslisa. Send questions to lschwarz@stcloudtimes.com.
Lisa Schwarz

About Lisa Schwarz

By day, I'm a St. Cloud Times editor guiding coverage of politics, government, public safety and business beats. By night, I'm leading the cubicle jailbreak as the Times Traveler. Follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/LisaSSchwarz and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sctimeslisa
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