Following United Airlines’ PR Debacle, What To Do If You Get Bumped


On the heels of the incident aboard a crowded United Airlines flight that ignited a firestorm of controversy, you need to know your rights as an airline passenger. Yes, an airline can bump you. And yes, they often intentionally overbook flights. But you are entitled to a certain amount of compensation for being inconvenienced under the law.

What To Do If You Get Bumped

Like what happened on a recent United flight, getting bumped is an unfortunate reality of air travel. But you do have rights in the event of being bumped from a flight.

United Airlines sank to the bottom of my list of preferred airlines. By now, you have probably viewed the recent video of a security officer yanking a passenger from a United flight – not because the man was unruly – but because United needed his seat (and three others) to transport flight crew to the destination. This could happen to you.

United said that personnel randomly selected four passengers already seated on the plane to be involuntarily bumped. As proven by the video and the initial statement of United’s CEO, your ejection from the plane could be violent if you protest.

After being “chosen” to deplane, three people left without a fuss. When the fourth passenger, the man in the video, said he had to go home, security personnel violently ejected the man from his seat. He apparently slammed his head on the armrest. The man, his face bloodied and his eyeglasses askew, was dragged down the aisle to the exit.

This incident goes beyond poor service to outrageous behavior on United’s part. If I were the man chosen to be removed from the plane, I too would have refused to give up my seat. After the video went viral, the Twitterverse came alive with new United slogans (#NewUnitedAirlinesMottos). Among them: “We put the hospital in hospitality;” “Beating expectations one punch at a time;” “Where fists fly free;” and “We have first class, business class, and no class.”

Amazingly, United’s CEO Oscar Munoz initially backed the airline personnel, stating that they followed established procedures. After torrents of bad publicity and public outrage, Munoz on Tuesday backed down, saying “no one should ever be mistreated this way.”  Duh.

What To Do If Bumped

Who gets bumped remains something of a gray area. Some 62 passengers per million were bumped last year according to the Department of Transportation. United’s stats: 3,765 passengers out of more than 86 million passengers last year.

· Compensation for bumping: For voluntary bumping, United originally offered $400 per passenger, then upped the compensation to $800. An offer typically includes passage on the next flight to your destination. No one accepted United’s offers. The maximum compensation for being bumped, voluntarily or involuntarily, is $1,350 per person. The Department of Transportation lists the rules and the math.

· How flyers are chosen to be bumped: It’s legal for airlines to oversell seats and to involuntarily bump passengers. I hope that United’s bad behavior will work to erode an airline’s power to bump passengers. Each airline seems to have its own system for choosing whom to eject. Some airlines ask those who purchased the lowest fares to leave first. Other airlines chop the last people to check in from the flight. For that reason, during busy flight times and holidays, it’s wise to check in early at the airport.

· What to do if bumped: You can negotiate. You have more leverage if you voluntarily choose to be bumped. Ask for a confirmed flight and a seat assignment on the takeoff to your destination. This helps to assure will actually get on and stay on that flight. Request the maximum amount allowed – $1350 per person, per domestic flight.  Instead of accepting the extra money you agree upon in the form of a voucher for a future flight, request gift certificates of your choice. Yes, the airlines offer these. A flight voucher may have travel blackout dates and restrictions on being transferred to others. A gift certificate usually doesn’t.