The procedures for getting bumped from a flight have become a hot topic after United Airlines dragged a customer from his seat, bloodying him in the process. That situation was horribly mismanaged, but airlines do have the right to bump you from a flight. It happens all the time. Airlines intentionally overbook flights to bolster profits. (It probably helps keep prices down too, but shhh... passengers prefer being mad about inconveniences over acknowledging the upside.)
When a flight is overbooked, the airline asks for volunteers, offering in the neighborhood of $200-400 in vouchers for any passenger who gives up their seat. It can be an enticing offer, but you stand to be better compensated if you wait and are involuntarily given the boot. In fact, a 2011 update to federal regulations requires you're well-compensated for your trouble.
Here's what you're owed if you are involuntarily bumped from a flight.
- If you reach your destination between one and two hours after the original flight was scheduled to land (two and four hours on an international flight), you get cash compensation equal to 200 percent of the ticket price with a maximum of $650, plus a refund on the purchased ticket.
- If you're rebooked and land more than two hours after the scheduled arrival time (four hours on an international flight), you get cash compensation equal to 400 percent of the ticket price with a maximum of $1,300, plus a refund on the purchased ticket.
Those are the regulations, but airlines can and sometimes do voluntarily offer more. On the other end of the spectrum, those amounts don't apply if your rebooked flight lands within an hour of the original arrival time, if you don't comply with check-in or reconfirmation procedures, if your plane is swapped for a smaller plane or if there are safety-related weight issues on a plane with fewer than 61 seats.