Flight Overbooked? Know Your Rights as a Passenger

By Lindsay Tigar and Vicki Polzot

You go through many hoops at the airport in the lead up to taking a flight, so it may seem shocking that your seat isn’t a guarantee.

Flight Overbooked? Know Your Rights as a Passenger
photo: istock

After a recent viral video showing airport security forcibly dragging a doctor off his flight in the US, you might wonder just what rights you have when you’re attempting to go on holiday or make a business meeting.

The good news is, unless you’re threatening harm to yourself or other passengers, you’re not going to be dragged out of your seat in Australia or New Zealand for an overbooked flight. These matters tend to be handled in a civilised way at the check-in counter well before boarding.

Generally speaking, however, whatever airline and airport officials (including the Australian Federal Police) says goes. While abiding by the rules will definitely make it less likely that you’ll be ripped out of your seat, if you’re ever caught in a dicey situation and feel your temper boiling, here is some handy information.

Schedules are more of an estimate than a promise

Airlines don’t guarantee their schedules, and you should factor this in when planning your trip, particularly if there are connecting flights involved. Many things from mechanical issues to bad weather often make it impossible for flights to arrive on time. If your flight is delayed, try to find out how late it will be. But keep in mind that it is sometimes difficult for airlines to estimate the total duration of a delay during its early stages.

So-called “rolling delays” occur when the reason for the delay turns out to be worse than initially expected, like a complicated mechanical problem or a stubborn storm that doesn’t clear out. If the problem is with local weather or air traffic control, all flights will probably be late and there’s not much you or the airline can do to speed up your departure.

So what happens when you’re faced with a never-ending day of delays or your flight is flat-out cancelled? Depending on what you’re dealing with, your rights vary.

If your flight is delayed…

Most of the time, airlines do their best to reassign passengers to later flights, but meal tickets? Cash money? According to the Australian Department of Transport and Regional Services, the government body that regulates the local airline industry, those things are offered at the discretion of each airline. If delayed, ask the airline staff if it will pay for meals or a phone call.  

Qantas, for example, will pay compensation if your scheduled arrival time at your destination is delayed by more than two hours. The greater the delay to your arrival time the greater the compensation. Budget airlines, charging very low fares, do not provide any amenities to stranded passengers. Others may not offer amenities if the delay is caused by bad weather or something else beyond the airline’s control.

If you’re bumped from a flight…

Airline employees will discreetly approach passengers asking for volunteers to catch a later flight. If you’re not in a hurry to get to your destination, giving up your seat so the airline can accommodate other passengers can mean hundreds of dollars, hotel accommodation, meal allowances, transfers to and from the airport and even upgrades.

But if no-one raises their hand willingly, volunteers will be selected based on a number of criteria determined by the airlines – as was the case with the recent United airlines flap. (To be clear, that specific flight wasn’t overbooked, contrary to other reports. The passengers had to be removed to accommodate crew members.)

Either way, it is illegal for a passenger to object: they must abide by the mandate. However, more likely than not, there will be compensation from the airline for your random selection.

You can negotiate…

Your flight is cancelled and now you’re going to miss your kid sister’s graduation. You’re upset, obviously – but that doesn’t mean you have to take their first offer for compensation. An airline can endorse your ticket for travel to another carrier meaning that you could get away sooner.

If you’re bumped, know your rights:

Of course, though, there are some nitty gritty details in the fine print to be aware of:

  1. If you are re-booked on another flight, getting you to your destination within one hour of your previous arrival time, you won’t receive financial compensation;
  2. If you upgraded your flight (more leg room, extra luggage) you are entitled to the same on your new flight or be reimbursed the difference;
  3. Flights booked using points are treated in the same way as those paid for in cash.

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