Bumping 101: DOT proposes increased compensation

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

Today, the US D.O.T. announced new proposed higher compensation rules for bumped passengers. For domestic flights, 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, the federal law would require that you be paid the equivalent of your one-way fare up to $650 if you arrive between one and two hours after your original arrival time; or $1300 if you arrive more than two hours late. For international flights, the compensation is the same, but the $650 payment kicks in if you arrive between one and four hours late, and payment goes up to $1300 for arrivals over four hours late.  The current limits are $400 and $800.

The airline may try to offer you a travel voucher rather than a cash payment, but don't take it. You 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 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. Really early. As in three hours early for domestic flights, and up to four hours for international ones. On overbooked flights, the last passengers to check in are among the first to get kicked off. Hate to wait around airports and sit in those noisy and crowded gate areas? Treat yourself to a one-day airline club lounge pass if you're not already a member. These cost about $30 per visit and are well worth it. Get some last minute work done, read a good book, play with your new iPad, watch TV, grab a drink, and relax. Why start your trip in a stressful state? It's simply not worth it.

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 30 or fewer passengers. Also remember that these rules vary for flights departing from the European Union, even if they're on US-based carriers. Indeed, the EU's rules are more consumer-friendly than the US D.O.T.'s.

In addition, if you do not check in for your flight within your airlines' published time periods, you're out of luck. Many airlines require that you check in for international flights no fewer than 60 minutes before departure; and you must be on board your flight at least 30 minutes 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.