Bumping 101

Surely you've seen them before. Surrounded by grease-blotted Sbarro boxes and empty soda cans, these unfortunate folks have been booted from their overbooked flight, left with no choice but to make camp on the airport floor and wait. Think it can't happen to you? Don't be so certain. Overbooking flights has become standard practice these days among the most airlines, and your chances of being booted are higher than ever. But before you resign yourself to a spot on the floor, Airfarewatchdog.com offers this advice:

What you're owed

 For starters, if you're involuntarily bumped off your flight and the airline can't get you to your destination within an hour of the original arrival time, federal law requires that you be paid the equivalent of your one-way fare up to $200 or $400, depending on the length of the delay.  

According to David Stempler of the Air Travelers Association, passengers should insist on a check instead of a travel voucher since they come with restrictions and can be difficult to redeem.  

What to do if you're bumped

Instead of waiting in line with other disgruntled bumpees for a gate agent, try sneaking off to call the airline 800 number directly (or call while you're waiting in line). Speaking immediately to an agent on the phone can help you skirt any airport computer systems that give priority to frequent fliers or those who paid top dollar for their fare. So it's a good idea to call in for first crack at seats.

How not to get bumped

 One way to avoid getting bumped altogether is to fly JetBlue Airways, which refuses to overbook and consequently has the best track bumping record among all major US carriers, followed by Airtran. And flying to or within the Hawaiian Islands should be a breeze, since both Hawaiian and Aloha Airlines always score in the top five carriers with the least involuntary denied boardings. And if you really can't afford to take any chances, you should know that Atlantic Southeast Airlines, Comair, and Delta Airlines consistently score the worst. You can find these and other rankings on the Department of Transportation website at http://airconsumer.ost.dot.gov.

And you should also know that the folks in the cheap seats have lower priority on some airlines than the ones who paid full fare. If you're a very frequent flyer at the highest tier of your airline's program and/or paid a full fare (or are a business or first class passenger) you're more likely to get on board than the poor chap who paid next to nothing for his coach ticket.

Of course, the easiest thing you can do to prevent getting bumped is arrive early. On overbooked flights, the last passengers to check in are among the first to get kicked off. And for those days when time is most definitely not on your side, call the airline in advance to let them know you'll be late and reserve a seat on the next flight.  

Exceptions to the rules

There are, however, a few exceptions to the bumping rule, in which case you may find yourself out of luck. For example, if the airline must substitute a smaller plane for the one it originally planned to use, the carrier isn't required to compensate people who are bumped as a result. Compensation also does not apply to charter flights, or scheduled flights with 60 or fewer passengers. Also remember that these rules vary for international flights, even if they're on US-based carriers. Not sure where you stand with your airline? Check their contract of carriage. In fact, it's a good idea to print this out and have it with you for reference incase of such an emergency. Sure, it may sound unnecessarily nerdy now, but hey, it just may save you from sleeping on a row of chairs next to Gate 43A.