I’ve read a lot in the news recently about planes denying passengers a seat because they’ve overbooked. Can they do that and, if so, what are my rights? James, Northampton
Overbooking, where airlines sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane, is a well-established practice in the industry and it’s been going on for years. Airlines argue that on most flights, a number of passengers will fail to show up, so the plane could be flying with empty seats. They say they use very sophisticated calculations to work out how many tickets to sell for each flight and it keeps the prices lower for all passengers. But that doesn’t help if you’re the passenger who can’t travel because the plane is full.
In most cases, the airline will normally ask for volunteers to give up their seats and take a later flight, in return for cash or travel vouchers. They’ll also arrange overnight accommodation if required. The problem comes if not enough passengers take up the offer. At some point, someone is going to get ‘bumped.’
If this happens, you are entitled to compensation but that depends on where in the world you are. If you’re flying from a European airport on any airline, or flying to a European airport on a European airline, you fall under the EU compensations rules for ‘denied boarding.’ These are the same as the ones for a flight delay or cancellation. So if the airline can’t arrange a flight that gets you to your destination within two hours of the original arrival time for short haul flights, up to four hours for long haul flights, then you are instantly entitled to cash compensation. This can be up to €600 depending on the flight distance.
Don’t allow the airline to fob you off with vouchers for future tickets – they have to give you real money! And remember, if you’re delayed overnight, you can claim for hotel expenses and meals.
In the USA, the situation is different. Airlines have to compensate you up to four times the cost of your ticket, to a maximum value of $1,350, although some are now saying they’ll go higher if necessary. The actual amount will depend on how long you’ve been delayed from arriving at your destination.
The rules in other parts of the world vary. For example in Australia, there are no legal requirements for airlines to compensate you if you’re denied boarding although they should cover reasonable expenses you’ve incurred.
Remember, you’re more likely to get help and rebooked on the next alternative flight if you keep your cool and are polite and reasonable with the gate staff. Alternatively, stick to airlines that don’t overbook. They are few and far between, but notable ones include Ryanair in Europe and Southwest Airlines in the USA.