The Department of Transportation has fined Delta Air Lines $375,000 for the way it has handled involuntary bumps of passengers, although $200,000 of the fine will be forgiven if Delta goes forth and sins no more, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports.
The DOT’s consent decree (Chris Elliott has posted it) says that on some occasions Delta denied boarding to passengers without first asking for volunteers to accept compensation for giving up their seats, that it failed to give written notice to passengers who were bumped involuntarily and that it didn’t compensate bumped passengers in a timely way.
Involuntary bumps are not terribly common. When flights are overbooked, airlines are supposed to ask for volunteers to give up their seats in return for cash or flight vouchers and a seat on a later flight. Only when airlines fail to get volunteers to accept bumps are they permitted to deny boarding involuntarily.
I have collected compensation of $200 to $400 in vouchers many times, mostly from Delta, by accepting voluntary bumps. I used to hear offers as high as $1,000, although it’s not common these days.
I’ve never been bumped involuntarily, or even seen it happen, but it happened to a colleague. It was on Delta, but it can happen on any airline.
Each airline has its own criteria for the order in which passengers get the boot, but most deny boarding first to people who don’t have seat assignments. For that reason, you should always check in electronically as early as you can and choose a seat. If it’s a bad seat, you can try to switch it at a kiosk or ticket counter at the airport.
Other criteria that can put you at risk of an involuntary bump are not being a member of the airline’s frequent-flier program, flying in coach and flying on the lowest fares. I’m almost always guilty of the last two, so I try not to be guilty of the first one. I have more frequent-flier cards than you can shake a stick at.
Hey, they’re free. Just remember to provide the number when you book the ticket.