"Ladies and gentlemen, we're in an oversold situation for our flight today and are looking for volunteers to take an alternate flight."
We've all heard that announcement while sitting at the gate. It simply means more passengers have shown up for the flight than the airline can accommodate.
Overselling flights is a common and necessary revenue management practice for airlines to ensure as many seats are filled as possible. Necessary because a certain percentage of people with confirmed reservations don't show for their flights. Sometimes they get the formula wrong and too many people show up.
But what do you do if there aren't enough volunteers and you get bumped off the flight? It's important to know your rights, especially as the peak summer travel season kicks off this Memorial Day weekend.
At the end of last summer, compensation owed to passengers involuntarily denied boarding doubled compared to a year ago.
There are two categories of denied boarding — voluntary and involuntary. Airlines will do everything in their power to solicit enough volunteers before outright bumping passengers, who want to fly. The reason is simple. If they don't, they have to report those passengers, bumped against their will, to the U.S. Department of Transportation. Airlines then must follow strict guidelines to compensate them — something they want to avoid.
Compensation can vary depending on how quickly the airline gets you to your destination, and if it's a domestic or international flight.
For both domestic and international flights, no compensation is due if your airline finds alternate transportation that will get you to your destination within one hour after the scheduled arrival time of your original flight.
On domestic flights, if they get you to your destination more than one hour but less than two hours from the original flight, cash compensation equivalent to 200 percent of the one-way fare of your flight is owed to a maximum of $650. More than two hours from the original time will net you 400 percent of the fare to a maximum of $1,300.
For international flights, the time frame is slightly different. Between one and four hours nets you the 200 percent level and more than four hours gives you the 400 percent amount.
And the compensation is due on the spot in the form of either cash or a check, as well as a written explanation of the terms of compensation. This is something most travelers aren't aware of, but should be mindful to demand before leaving the gate.
How airlines pick passengers to bump can vary. To minimize your chances, be sure to check-in as early as possible and be at the gate a minimum of 30 minutes before departure. It also helps to have elite status with the carrier, as they'll generally overlook their most valued frequent flyers.