You’ve waited for this moment for as long as you can remember. New York Fashion Week. You’ve got your after parties lined up, spend WAY too much on digs at a hotel where you know the scene is on, you’re decked in black and ready to board your flight. Hmm, you think to yourself, this flight sure is packed. Then you hear your name called over the intercom. “We’re sorry” the agent tells you, “we overbooked and we don’t have a seat assignment for you. We’re sorry for the inconvenience, but we’re happy to offer you $500 dollars and we’ll put you on the next flight out tomorrow morning.” WHAT. But that hotel room is $800 dollars a night! (Hey, it’s Fashion Week.) You toiled for months over what to wear to the pre-party tonight! How can they do this?!

So what IS the deal with overbooking? Is it just a brazen, arbitrary estimation by the airline of how many travelers won’t show? And do you have rights as a paying, responsible traveler who purchased a ticket well in advance? The answer according to the Department of Transportation is yes, you do have rights. But it is not illegal to overbook; the airline has a basic right to oversell. So the DOT has established some rules to try and find a happy compromise between the bumped-passenger and the (oh-so-rude) airlines.

First, let’s understand why the airlines overbook: they are simply trying to compensate for the “no-shows.” I’m sure we are all aware that airlines have a dramatic history of fiscal rises and falls – the ubiquitous “Chapter 11 Bankruptcy” is almost synonymous with airlines; they are true slaves to the health of the financial marketplace, particularly when it comes to oil prices and the overall economic stability of companies and individuals, which of course, promotes travel. That being said, the bottom line matters. A lot. So each flight has to be profitable; we can’t just have planes flying around with the seats half empty (isn’t it lovely when it happens, though?).

The DOT understands this, and allows for the airline to oversell the seats. However, if all the passengers show up, the DOT requires the airline to ask passengers to give up their seats voluntarily, in exchange for compensation, usually for a voucher for a fare similar to the one you paid. But when no one wants to “give it up,” the involuntary “bumping” begins.

If you happen to be one of the unlucky passengers to get booted from the flight against your will, you are required to receive a written Statements of Rights; included in this should be an explanation of how that airline decides who gets an oversold ticket. Some factors that the airline may consider is the price paid for the ticket, whether you were late checking in and whether you have a reserved seat assignment (more difficult to do these days). Regardless of the reason, in most situations the airline is required to compensate the passenger what’s called “Denied Boarding Compensation.” The agent should be able to issue you a check right away, at the gate, in the amount of up to $1300.
The DOT recommends arriving to the airport as early as you can to guarantee you get on that plane and reminds us that every airline has different rules regarding overbooking flights. Arriving early should be normal course for all you travelers out there regardless of the overbooking policies, since most airlines are now requiring you to check in at the actual gate before doling out seat assignments. (And remember, a confirmed seat assignment may be a factor your airline considers when choosing who to bump.)

So get there early, head to the gate, confirm your seat and enjoy a Bloody Mary with a side of smug, because you know you’re getting on that flight, oversold or not…