Change Your Altitude

US Based Airlines: Who Overbooks And How Do They Handle It?

In light of recent events at *ahem* United, airlines are under more scrutiny than ever regarding their overbooking policies and what they can and can’t do under the watchful eyes of the law.

What’s also under scrutiny is the way airline handles these situations. Technically – technically United was able to do what they did under their contract of carriage rules, where they say you must obey crew member instructions or risk removal from the flight. The flight attendant asked him to leave and he didn’t.

But on the other hand, it remains a question of debate whether he was even allowed to be asked to do that. “Involuntary Denied Boarding” is indeed unfortunately a thing, and ‘operational reasons’ falls under this category – UA were trying to deadhead a crew to Louisville to operate a next morning flight. The thing is, this man (along with the other four passengers that were randomly selected) had already boarded and were in their seats. They should have never been boarded to begin with if this were to happen.

The other issue is that the agents weren’t even empowered to up the de-board offer from $800. Everyone has their price – eventually someone would have bit and this whole fiasco would have been avoided. But that’s another question for another day.

But what is a question for the day is looking at this nightmare, what airlines overbook, and if they do what are the thresholds and what are the basics we as the traveling public know about these guidelines? Just what are we entitled to if we choose to de-board?

Let’s start with the culprit du-jour, shall we?



So this might be the root of the problem for United, but their policy seems rather loose and open to interpretation. Never a good thing when it comes to things like this. There isn’t room for negotiation either, as in for airline employees to take their own stand in extraordinary cases. Seems like there’s five different levels of beauracy before anything can get approved.

  • All of UA’s flights are subject to overbooking which could result in UA’s inability to provide previously confirmed reserved space for a given flight or for the class of service reserved. In that event, UA’s obligation to the Passenger is governed by Rule 25.
    • Rule 25:
    • All of UA’s flights are subject to overbooking which could result in UA’s inability to provide previously confirmed reserved space for a given flight or for the class of service reserved. In that event, UA’s obligation to the Passenger is governed by Rule 25.
    • Boarding Priorities – If a flight is Oversold, no one may be denied boarding against his/her will until UA or other carrier personnel first ask for volunteers who will give up their reservations willingly in exchange for compensation as determined by UA. If there are not enough volunteers, other Passengers may be denied boarding involuntarily in accordance with UA’s boarding priority:
    • Passengers who are Qualified Individuals with Disabilities, unaccompanied minors under the age of 18 years, or minors between the ages of 5 to 15 years who use the unaccompanied minor service, will be the last to be involuntarily denied boarding if it is determined by UA that such denial would constitute a hardship.
    • The priority of all other confirmed passengers may be determined based on a passenger’s fare class, itinerary, status of frequent flyer program membership, and the time in which the passenger presents him/herself for check-in without advanced seat assignment.

In this regard if you have a look at the rule United messed up – big time.

More here.

Let’s move on to the next big player in the US market.



It seems as though Delta has a much more broad scoping (read: clear) policy on who stands where on the pecking order in terms of cases of overbooking and volunteers, especially in the case we find here – involuntary denied boarding. Again, the base seems to be relatively same with United but Delta does go to much more further lengths in order to describe what happens, when.

At the spine of the issue is once again ‘boarding’ versus ‘boarded’ and Delta’s policy makes it clear that once your boarding pass has been scanned and ripped (as it was for the United disaster) that’s it – you’re onboard and this rule is moot.

  • Because passengers with confirmed reservations on a flight sometimes fail to show, Delta reserves the right to sell more tickets for travel on each flight than there are seats available on the aircraft. In some cases, this may result in an “oversold flight,” i.e., a flight in which Delta cannot accommodate one or more passengers with confirmed reservations. In that case, Delta may deny boarding to passengers with confirmed reservations on the flight. The rights of passengers with confirmed reservations who are denied boarding due to the oversale of a flight are governed by Rule 245.
    • Rule 245:
    • Involuntary Denied Boarding If an insufficient number of passengers volunteer to give up their seats in response to Delta’s offer, Delta may involuntarily deny boarding to one or more passengers on the oversold flight according to the following boarding priority rules:
      • Passengers Holding Tickets for Travel in Premium Cabin, SkyMiles members identified with a Diamond Medallion (“DM”), Platinum Medallion (“PM”), or Gold Medallion (“GM”) elite-status designation, and passengers holding tickets purchased under a DL corporate travel agreement. Passengers holding tickets for confirmed space in the First or Business class cabin, SkyMiles members identified with a DM, PM, or GM elite-status designation, and passengers holding tickets purchased under a DL corporate travel agreement will be accommodated before other passengers holding tickets and/or boarding passes for confirmed space in the coach cabin. 2) Passengers With Boarding Passes Subject to the terms set forth in Rule 245(c )(1) and (4), passengers holding boarding passes who check in and present themselves at the departure gate in compliance with Rule 135(c) will be accommodated before passengers traveling in the same cabin who have not been issued boarding passes or who fail to comply with applicable check-in requirements. Subject to the availability of seats on the aircraft, boarding passes may be obtained by pass

More here.

Delta Main Cabin Economy Class


American Airlines:

On to the biggest one of the three – AA. We kind of go back to United territory here with how ‘loose’ American’s rules are and leaves a lot of room for interpretation – a tricky situation to put yourself in. They don’t seem to make much distinction between a cancellation and a involuntary denied boarding – two very, very different situations. That makes things hard for gate staff to sort out, because where there’s vastly differing situations with essentially the same rules applying, that makes both passengers and agents confused because, let’s face it, it doesn’t make sense.

  • If a flight is oversold (more passengers hold confirmed reservations than there are seats available), no one may be denied boarding against his or her will until airline personnel first ask for volunteers who will give up their reservation willingly, in exchange for compensation of the airline’s choosing. If there are not enough volunteers, other passengers may be denied boarding involuntarily in accordance with the following boarding priority of American. In such events, American will usually deny boarding based upon check-in time, but we may also consider factors such as severe hardships, fare paid, and status within the AAdvantage® program
  • If you are denied boarding involuntarily, you are entitled to a payment of ‘‘denied boarding compensation’’ from the airline unless:You have not fully complied with the airline’s ticketing, check-in and reconfirmation requirements, or you are not acceptable for transportation under the airline’s usual rules and practices; or
  • You are denied boarding because the flight is canceled; or
  • You are denied boarding because a smaller capacity aircraft was substituted for safety or operational reasons; or
  • On a flight operated with an aircraft having 60 or fewer seats, you are denied boarding due to safety-related weight/balance restrictions that limit payload; or
  • You are offered accommodations in a section of the aircraft other than specified in your ticket, at no extra charge (a passenger seated in a section for which a lower fare is charged must be given an appropriate refund); or
  • The airline is able to place you on another flight or flights that are planned to reach your next stopover or final destination within one hour of the planned arrival time of your original flight

Yeah that’s about as clear as mud, that one.

More here.

American Airlines' 777-300ER Main Cabin


Southwest Airlines:

Southwest Airlines has a clear policy and is way more generous than United regarding situations like this, offering nearly $600 more than what United ground staff are allowed to offer – to begin with – so that’s way more empowerment to the frontline folks. This also enables the airline to reach a settlement with any given passenger (without having to resort to ‘random computer sorting’) but allows the staff present – those who are dealing with the situation as it unfolds – to get the situation resolved with minimum fuss and face no backlash from corporate.

  • If we do not receive enough volunteers to accommodate all Customers who have purchased travel and have met our checkin time but do not hold a boarding pass, those Customers will be involuntarily denied boarding. We will confirm you on the next Southwest Airlines flight to your destination with seats available. If your alternative flight(s) is scheduled to arrive at your destination or stopover point within two hours of your originally scheduled flight(s), you will be compensated. We will immediately issue a check or, if you prefer, a travel voucher in an amount equal to twice the face value of your remaining one-way flight coupon(s). The maximum amount of involuntary denied boarding compensation is $675 under these circumstances.
  • If your alternate flight(s) is scheduled to arrive at your destination or stopover point more than two hours later than your originally scheduled flight(s), your compensation will increase to an amount equal to four times your remaining one-way flight coupon(s). In these cases, the maximum amount of denied boarding compensation increases to $1,350.
  • If you are involuntarily denied boarding, you will also be given a written Notice of Denied Boarding to help you understand our policies, your compensation, and your travel alternatives.

More here.



Now on to the industry leader in this regard – JetBlue – who does not overbook its flights. In times of
irregular operations, there might be overbooking situations but this does not apply to normal flight ops. This is an amazing approach to this whole issue. I’m not sure why they do this or how they are able to cope with the financial ramifications of booking flights only to capacity, but hey – the consumer wins on this one.

  • A passenger who is denied involuntarily in the case of irregular operations (IRROPS) is entitled to $1,350 (one thousand three hundred fifty US Dollars) after which the airline (JetBlue) relieves itself of responsibility of the passenger post re-accommodation.

More here.


The Takeaway

So there you have it – the main 5 big airlines of the United States and where they stand on the issue of overbookings and involuntary denied boarding.

To us given the situation United is definitely the stingiest of the lot – with American a close second on the issue and how they deal with it. Delta is the clearest on the issue, laying it out right there so at least you know where you definitely stand on the queue of how you’re bumped if you find yourself in this situation.

Southwest has a similar policy as to that of the traditional ‘big three’ but has far more monetary compensation and give their frontline ground crew a lot more leeway in dealing with these issues and also empower much more compensation, nearly 1/3rd more in fact. JetBlue has the same generous compensation but doesn’t even overbook to begin with and this only refers to times of flight cancellations and reaccomadation onto other flights.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that JetBlue by far surpasses their competitors in this regard (they tend to do that) – they don’t even do it to begin with but when they do they compensate better than most. Southwest is great in that while they still overbook, they do compensate more than any of United, Delta or American. Delta, for a ‘big three’ airline, does well in that they clearly lay out what their policy is which goes a long way to clear doubt. Down in the doldrums are American and yep, United – the problem with their policies is that they are so complicated and convoluted that it makes for very muddy waters and that’s when things like what happened on that UA flight to Louisville happen. It seems that neither the passenger, the ground crew, cabin crew or security officials were very clear about what they could and couldn’t do and in a stressful situation where they had to get the aircraft out of the gate, people do things they wouldn’t normally do or don’t perhaps think things through. You need to empower your staff to use their judgement in a irregular situation and UA and AA simply don’t. So that makes them come in dead last.

Given these five carriers, I know which one I’d like to be on, and it’s not any of the big three.

How do you feel about the issue – would you ever avail of any of these compensation packages should the situation occur, or will you need to be (literally) dragged off the plane in these circumstances?

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