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Overbooked Flights and Knowing Your Rights

Overbooking is standard practice across the airline industry. Airlines want planes as full as allowable upon takeoff. They also know there will likely be no-shows, therefore they overbook. Unsurprisingly, overbooking sometimes leads to would-be passengers getting bumped from flights. It may also happen if a plane is too heavy, or to make room for an air marshal or relocate staff (reminiscent of the infamous United Airlines incident).

The Department of Transportation requires that airlines first ask for volunteers to switch flights. Airlines will generally offer incentives such as a travel voucher or a future flight or a gift card. If you feel the offer is worth the inconvenience, go for it. Once an offer is accepted, however, you can't come back later and ask for more.

If there are no volunteers, the airline will choose who gets the heave-ho according to their own "bumping" policies - but federal rules kick in at that point. Exceptions are frequently those with disabilities, unaccompanied minors, and those with loyalty status, among others. Check-in order may play a role too.

Carriers are required to deliver fliers to their destinations within a certain timeframe of their originally scheuled flgiht or they'll be on the hook for paying the passenger, up to a designated limit. Passengers have the right to demand a check instead of a voucher, and they keep their original ticket, which retains its value.

Once you cash the check, you lose any leverage in possibly obtaining a higher settlement (e.g., cost of being bumped exceeds what you were paid). If you haven't cashed the check, you may be able to negotiate with the airline. If its a no-go, filing a legal claim may be your best option.

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