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What are your rights on an oversold flight?

Flights being oversold is simply reality in the airline business. Because a certain number of passengers don't show up at boarding time, airlines calculate their percentage and oversell tickets to protect their bottom line. As we all know, they sometimes oversell too much.

We've all experienced being bumped from a flight. If we're lucky, we've experienced an upgrade due to overselling. What we all hope we never experience is the rough de-planing of a United Airlines passenger earlier this month. He was not denied a seat but forcibly removed from the plane after being seated. He has now filed a personal injury lawsuit after suffering a broken nose and two lost teeth.

"Are we going to continue to be treated like cattle?" asked his lawyer.

According to the Journalist's Resource, there's little we can do about overbooked flights. Hopefully, the United Passenger's experience will be a rare or one-time event. So what rights to we have?

Federal law gives you rights when being bumped, sitting on tarmac

The U.S. Department of Transportation instituted rules protecting passengers in overbooking situations and prohibiting long waits on the tarmac back in 2009. In 2011, it extended additional protections.

"It's just common sense that if an airline loses your bag or you get bumped from a flight because it was oversold, you should be reimbursed," said then Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "The additional passenger protections we're announcing today will help make sure air travelers are treated with the respect they deserve."

Prior to the federal rules being passed, your rights were largely determined by your contract with the airline, called a "contract of carriage." Unfortunately, that contract is a bit Byzantine, and it's unlikely you'll have a lawyer along with you the next time you're bumped from a flight.

Today, U.S. federal law and other nations' laws have an impact on your rights. Under U.S. law, you have the right to compensation if you're bumped from a flight and it causes you to delay your travel. Here are the basic rules:

You're entitled to:

  • No compensation if the airline offers alternative transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination or connecting flight no more than an hour after your original scheduled arrival time
  • 200 percent of your fare, up to $650, if the alternative transportation offered would get you to your destination or connecting flight no more than two hours late
  • 400 percent of your fare, up to $1,300, if the alternative transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination or connecting flight more than two hours late

Keep in mind that that's just what you're entitled to. Airline employees and supervisors may have additional funds available to persuade you.

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