United Airlines incident: What you need to know if you get bumped off an overbooked flight

Travellers check in for flights at O'Hare International Airport, on March 14, 2017, in Chicago, Illinois. PHOTO: AFP

SINGAPORE - Airports and airlines in the United States do not have the best reputations. Long immigration and security lines, ageing infrastructure and poor customer service plague the industry there. Now United Airlines is facing a media uproar and intense scrutiny after a passenger was bloodied and forcibly removed from an overbooked United Airlines flight from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky on Sunday night (April 9).

The incident was recorded and uploaded online, leaving travellers around the world aghast, and worried about whether such a thing could happen to them.

Here's what you need to know:

1. Overbooking is standard practice in the airline industry

Airlines over-sell their flights to compensate for "no-shows" - travellers who, for one reason or another, do not make their flight.

How much an airline over-sells depends on the airline and the particular route. While it is uncommon for passengers to be denied boarding because of overbooking in Asia, it is par for the course in the United States.

According to the US Department of Transportation, 40,000 travellers were involuntarily bumped and another 434,000 passengers voluntarily gave up their seats on flights with US airlines last year.

This may sound like a lot, but airlines in the US flew 660 million passengers last year, and involuntary bumps accounted for just less than 1 per cent of passengers.

Voluntary or not, bumped passengers are entitled to compensation.

2. Travellers advised not to volunteer

Though the payout might be tempting, travellers should not volunteer to be bumped to another flight if airline staff announce that their flight is overbooked. Even though volunteers will be compensated, it is typically US$200 to US$400, much less than if the bump is enforced by the airline.

If passengers are involuntarily denied boarding in the US, and the airline is unable to reschedule their flights to arrive within one hour of the originally scheduled arrival time, they are entitled to compensation. How much will depend on the length of the delay. For example, if a traveller arrives at their final destination between one and two hours after the original arrival time, or between one and four hours for an international flight, the airline must pay the passenger twice the amount of the ticket, up to US$675.

If the delay is longer, the airline must pay the passenger four times the cost of the ticket, up to US$1,300.

When flying within the European Union, travellers who are involuntarily denied boarding are entitled to refreshments, meals, hotel accommodation, transport between the airport and place of accommodation, two free telephone calls, telex or fax messages, or e-mails and compensation totalling €250 for all flights of 1,500km or less; €400 for all intra-EU flights of more than 1,500km, and for all other flights between 1,500km and 3,500km; and €600 for all other flights.

In Singapore, on the rare occasion when travellers are bumped from Scoot or Tigerair, passengers will be placed on the next available flight. Hotel accommodation will be provided if the next flight is not within the same day. Alternatively, passengers can make their own travel arrangements and receive a full refund of their airfare.

3. Go for cash, not vouchers

If you are bumped off, insist on cash rather than vouchers. Airlines will often try to offer travel vouchers towards future flights, meals or gift cards. These come with many hidden terms and conditions, however, and vouchers may only be applicable for limited use at certain outlets within the airport. Make sure you know what the voucher's restrictions are before you accept them.

4. Who gets bumped?

Each airline has their own procedures and methods for choosing which passengers to involuntarily bump, if needed. Some will defer to the time of check-in, others will choose passengers flying on the cheapest tickets as this means less compensation is required.

To avoid the risk of travelling on an overbooked flight, choose an off-peak flight time and travel period, if possible. Airlines are also less likely to bump their frequent flyers.

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