A long, bumpy ride to denied-boarding compensation

Tom Posch missed a weekend trip to Cleveland last summer after United Airlines overbooked his flight. Normally, travelers in Posch’s shoes would quietly accept the flight vouchers the airline offered as compensation.

But Posch is an Air Force attorney, and he decided to dig into federal regulations to see what the law requires of United.

What he found led him to file a lawsuit in a Virginia district court last month and it reveals that passenger rights are never a sure thing — even when it comes to something as seemingly certain as involuntarily denied boarding compensation.

On Aug. 10, Posch, his 8-year-old daughter and his 7-year-old son were told that they couldn’t travel from Reagan National Airport to Cleveland because their flight was overbooked, he says. Since the next available flight didn’t leave for another day, Posch canceled the trip. The online travel agency he’d used refunded his ticket, and after he complained in writing, the airline offered him three flight vouchers worth $300 each.

Posch believes that federal regulations require United to pay more. United says he’s misreading the rule: The involuntary denied boarding rules include an exemption for aircraft with fewer than 60 seats, and since his flight was on a 50-seat regional jet, the airline didn’t have to give him anything.

But Posch argues that the 60-seat standard applies only when extra passengers would interfere with the aircraft’s safety, and specifically if the combined weight of him and his children had unbalanced the aircraft or kept it from operating safely.

Fortunately, involuntary denied boardings — or being “bumped” from a flight — are relatively rare. Airlines record each incident and must share it with the Transportation Department. The DOT then publicly reports the number.

Among the major carriers, United had the most involuntary denied boardings from July to September, the last months for which figures are available. It bumped 4,014 passengers, for 1.9 bumpings per 10,000 passengers. By contrast, JetBlue, with the fewest denied boardings, showed just 10 passengers the door.

Denied boardings come with the territory when you’re flying on a legacy airline. But the least you can expect is that the government will protect you when you’re bumped. In 2011, after briefly considering the idea of banning overbooking, the DOT raised the airline penalties for denied boardings, instituting a sliding scale for compensation based on the length of delay and the cost of the ticket. Before then, a passenger like Posch would have received up to $800 for being turned away from his flight.

The circumstances of Posch’s trip were frustrating, if nothing else. He and his kids arrived at Reagan National more than an hour before their scheduled departure. Their boarding passes bore a notice asking whether they’d consider volunteering for the next flight because theirs had been oversold. Posch wasn’t interested, and as the departure time drew near, no one else volunteered for the next flight either, he says.

Complicating matters: Several United crewmembers were standing near the jetway, and a gate agent was referring to them as “must-flys” — meaning that, if necessary, paying passengers would be bumped to accommodate them.

The agents began by offering a $400 voucher to passengers who would give up their seats. Only one couple accepted. The gate agents raised the value of the vouchers several times, delaying the flight by an hour, but there were no takers. In the end, Posch and his family were denied boarding to make room for the “must-flys” and other passengers, he says.

Few air travelers know that there are rules governing oversales, so it isn’t uncommon to see passengers simply walk away when they’re bumped, without asking for any compensation. Not to get too technical, but finding the rule is fairly easy. A quick search for the latest version of the Code of Federal Regulations under “involuntary denied boarding” reveals chapter and verse ( 14 CFR § 250.8 ).

The rule as written could be interpreted two ways — as meaning either that all planes with fewer than 60 seats are completely exempt from the bumping law, or that the only time these smaller jets are not bound by the regulation is if the number of passengers affects the aircraft’s safe operation. The DOT says that the law is unambiguous and as written completely exempts only planes with 30 or fewer seats. Put differently, an airline can’t count on the 60-seat rule to get out of the denied-boardings rule.

Still, it’s possible for an airline to cite the 60-seat regulation, and unless it’s dealing with a passenger like Posch, or unless a passenger files a complaint with the DOT, it could save a few hundred dollars. That may be one of the reasons regional carriers such as Skywest Airlines, ExpressJet Airlines and Mesa Airlines scored even worse than United in the DOT report. Those airlines racked up a rate of 2.3, 2.45 and 2.5 bumpings per 10,000 passengers, respectively. Maybe part of the reason they bumped so many is that they could.

The fix? Airlines are currently required to give bumped passengers a written synopsis of the law. But why not offer the entire rule — not just a summary — before turning people away?

I shared the correspondence between Posch and United with the DOT. Bill Mosley, a department spokesman, said it appeared that the Posches were eligible for compensation. “If that’s the case, each of them would be entitled to a check for 400 percent of their one-way fare from Washington to Cleveland, with a maximum of $1,300 per person,” he told me.

I also forwarded the Posch file to United and asked it to review its response to him. It re-examined his case and lawsuit. “After reviewing Mr. Posch’s circumstances, we determined that he was, in fact, entitled to compensation,” United spokesman Charles Hobart said. “We are honoring his claim.”

Posch is happy with that , and so am I. But I wonder how many other passengers have been turned down like this? And in the coming winter travel season, how many more will be?

Whose interpretation of the denied-boarding rule do you agree with?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at chris@elliott.org. Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • EdB

    The vote button isn’t working this morning. I think it is an airline conspiracy because they know they are going to lose the vote. *grin*

  • Alan Gore

    Why is a RegionalJet being used on this flight? RJs were designed to serve small places, but when airlines run them between major cities, you get overbooking and the luggage mess covered earlier in the week.

  • http://elliott.org Christopher Elliott

    I think it’s fixed. Sorry.

  • Charlie Funk

    City pair size is sometimes less a consideration than number of passengers expected to fly between those cities. The logical person might then say “Well, why not have fewer flights but larger aircraft?” Silly goose. This is the airline industry.

  • http://travelingwinechick.com/ Elizabeth Smith

    This happened to a friend recently on United. He refused to purchase an exit row seat on a regional jet when he checked in 24 hours out, so he didn’t have a seat assignment. He was to be assigned a seat at the gate. He was never assigned a seat and was subsequently bumped. He received the maximum $1300 compensation. It sounds as if United was just trying to get out of compensating three passengers in this case.

  • James Orth

    its not fixed I just tried to vote. This is why I take Amtrak’s sleeper service whenever possible

  • Wayne Dayton

    Even when one has a good case, airlines will weasle out. My relatives were denied boarding on the old Mexicana (good riddance!), and their entreaties for compensation were accepted by that carrier’s corporate lawyer, Mike Holland, an honourable and well respected aviation attorney. What did the miserable b-turds at MX do? They refused to listen to their own counsel, and refused to pay his agreed $1600/person…and switched law firms! As it dragged on, they eventually went under and didn’t pay a dime…hopefully they also ended up owing — and not paying — the new law firm’s fees, or the salary of the tnuc manager at their California regional offices who wanted to legally pound out the passengers.

  • Nigel Appleby

    It’s fixed, let’s hope it stays fixed

  • mszabo

    Well at least they are upping the voucher offers now. Last time United bumped me they stuck with $400 the entire time. They needed 1 seat to fit my family of four and couldn’t get it. Instead they ended up cutting a check for $3200 for the involuntary bump. I had asked the gate agent if he was planning on increasing that voucher amount and explained I personally would not be taking a voucher and would want the cash. He said he wasn’t authorized to increase the voucher.

  • dourdan

    that can happen to regular tickets?

    my sister in law bought me and my husband tickets on United, to come home for the holidays and when we checked in the attendant said “you will have to ask about seats at the gate.”

    Luckly we were pushed to the front of the line since we had checked bags (seriously they were repeating that line over and over “this couple has checked bags on this flight!”)

    point is- when we arrived in Chicago we accused her of buying us stand by tickets.

  • $16635417

    In most cases, increased frequency results in a larger number of total passengers flown between the cities. The downside is they are usually on smaller planes.

  • Sam Varshavchik

    I just checked with Google Maps, and Washington DC to Cleveland, OH, is about a 370 mile drive.

    Funny coincidence, since I’m leaving on a business trip in two weeks. The mileage clocks in at 351 miles.

    This would normally also be a United regional jet. But it won’t be. Because I’ll be driving, which is why I know the exact mileage. It’s not the first time I’m doing this trip. I used to fly, but, after some soul-searching a few years back, I decided that I just don’t want to put up with it any more. When I add up everything, the lead time getting to the airport, the wait for my bags to arrive, queuing at the taxi line, getting to the hotel — flying only saved an hour of my time, at the most.

    Instead, I will leave home on my schedule, and not the airline’s. I’ll enjoy the trip in a comfortable seat, rather than having my guts fried by TSA’s scanners, then packed inside a pressurized sardine can, fighting over elbow room with a 300lb passenger in the next seat. I’ll even take an extra hour on a break about halfway through my trip, for a nice meal in a dive. Having done this before, I know I’ll get to the hotel in a far better mental and physical condition, then if I were to fly.

    This story is a perfect scenario for boycotting air travel. At least for this kind of a trip, it’s completely unnecessary.

  • Cybrsk8r

    I hear you, buddy. I’m going to Orlando in Feb. I live in the DC area. I’m going to give the Autotrain a whirl. I pack my bags in the trunk of the car. I’ll take some snacks and sodas, relax in my “roomette” watching movies on my laptop. Then go to sleep and arrive in the morning.

    No TSA, no airlines, no lost luggage, and as a bonus, no rental car agency trying to jerk me around for phantom damage. I avoid the airlines whenever possible.

  • Cybrsk8r

    There you go again, trying to apply logic to an industry that seems allergic to it.

  • oldft

    …even the Amtrak overnite coach seats make airline 1st class seem like sardine cans! That plus plenty of “move around” room, club car and diner make train travel a “no-brainer!”

  • LFH0

    While carriers ought to follow the law, when they don’t, it is up to passengers to have the law enforced. Good for Mr. Posch.

    The regulation involved here appears to be 14 C.F.R. § 250.6. That regulation states, in relevant part, “A passenger denied boarding involuntarily from an oversold flight shall not be eligible for denied boarding compensation if . . .
    (b) . . . on an aircraft with a designed
    passenger capacity of 60 or fewer seats, the flight for which the
    passenger holds confirmed reserved space is unable to accommodate that
    passenger due to weight/balance restrictions when required by
    operational or safety reasons. . . .” Mr. Mosley is correct that this regulation really is not ambiguous. It does not exempt all aircraft with seating capacity of 60 or fewer passengers. Instead, it simply says that if an aircraft with 60 or fewer passengers, then the only exemption from having to pay compensation is if a passenger is denied boarding due to weight and balance restrictions. But in the absence of such weight and balance restrictions causing denied boarding, compensation is payable. More specifically, Mr. Posch was denied boarding because of overbooking, not because of weight and balance restrictions. This exception simply does not apply, and Mr. Posch rightfully deserved compensation.

  • flutiefan

    i had to involuntarily deny boarding to 2 people today, and IT SUCKED. but, i gave them what they were entitled to: since we couldn’t get them to their destination within 2 hours, they each got 4x their one-way fare in monetary form (not vouchers), with a cap of $1300. they had each paid over $300 for their ticket (one-way), so they each got a check for $1300.

    i hated that my company overbooked a flight by so many (a total of 4) during this season, when typically everyone shows up. i hated that i had to split up a family. i hated that i was begging for volunteers so many times that the passengers in the gate laughed when i got on the mic and said, “It’s me again!” i hated that one man said it was personally MY fault that i couldn’t get him on the flight, that i did it to him on purpose, and that i chose him (i didn’t… he was the last person to try to check in), and that he just KNEW i could get him on the plane.

    i hate being put in the position to be blamed and possibly ruin someone’s trip, all because some person in a cubicle decided with his “formula” that X amount of people wouldn’t take the flight, and he was wrong.

    that said, i will never shortchange a passenger by not giving them what they’re entitled to in this situation, and it’s shameful that some airlines appear to encourage their employees to skirt the rules.

  • flutiefan

    yes it happens to regular tickets. it’s called overbooking, and nearly every single airline does it.

  • flutiefan

    i’m not authorized to increase voucher amount, either, at my company. it’s set by corporate.

  • Carrie Charney

    I wasn’t aware that one could purchase standby tix.

  • flutiefan

    yes, one can. most airlines do them very differently (some give you a price break, some are full price but fully refundable if you don’t get on the flight, etc), so you’d have to call to find out how it would work.

  • X-ray Guy

    The vote button is still not working for me at 4:44 PM PST 12-22-12

  • Steve Rabin

    Thank you for sharing this–I’ve always suspected most gate agents really do care about their pax, and are extremely honest and hard working.
    I gather your airline encourages (or doesn’t discourage?) you giving the proper compensation…makes me wonder if others do openly discourage agents telling the pax what they’re entitled to.

  • Steve Rabin

    I can understand why the legacy airlines want you to take vouchers rather than cash–most of the vouchers come with huge restrictions (not valid during Christmas, New Years, Bastille Day or any day with a ‘Y’ in it)–and probably a large number of them expire before getting used. And with razor thin margins, shelling out $1300 ruins the bottom line. But when they try to wheedle out of any compensation–that really irks me.
    So Chris, what do you recommend? If an airline balks at fair compensation, should we contact the DOT?

  • Pooh

    When vouchers for a free flight were offered they had blackout days. Now vouchers are good toward the purchase of any e-ticket and there are no blackout days.

  • Extramail

    Agreed as I read this while i sit at my parents house after having driven 12 hours instead of having to take two legs to reach my destination. Lets do the math: drive an hour to the airport, 30 minutes to check in and get through security, sit for an hour waiting on the flight, 1 1/2 hour flight time, 30 minutes to de-plane, sit for an hour at first destination, 1 1/2 hour flight time, 30 minutes waiting to retrieve my luggage, 30 minutes to my patents home. Seven hours, if everything goes smoothly at all of the airports. I’d rather drive!

  • Jeanne_in_NE

    Not working on IE9, but works fine on Chrome. Maybe this is a browser thing?

  • cjr001

    It seems to work fine in Firefox 14.

  • http://ladylighttravel.com/ LadyLightTravel

    Therein lies a huge problem. If the people in the field aren’t authorized to fix problems then you are going to disenfranchise your customer base. I’m sorry that you don’t work for an airline that trusts you.

  • bayareascott

    Never ever seen a situation where an airline tried to get out of compensating passengers denied boarding, even though many customers have no idea what they are entitled to (and others erroneously think they are entitled to ridiculous amounts).

    Gate agents just manage a situation given to them. They don’t create it. But faced with customers like the one above, any caring disappears rapidly. Everyone has a story about why they MUST get on the flight. No kidding….that’s why people bought tickets. Agents have no control over if there will be denied boardings or not. But agents may have some discretion over which of those final customers get the last few seats. That’s why YOU should try very hard NOT to be the a$$hole…

  • bayareascott

    A couple of your figures are arguable, but 30 minutes to deplane? Are there 5000 passengers on your aircraft?

  • bayareascott

    That makes no sense whatsoever. He didn’t have a seat assignment, was denied boarding and got $1300 compensation, so therefore the airline was trying to get out of compensating passengers? What???

  • bayareascott

    Airlines use regional jet aircraft because they don’t have to operate the flights. Thus, less cost.

  • bayareascott

    That’s silly. An airline that trusts? LOL…trust has nothing to do with anything. There are things called policies. It isn’t about fixing a problem either. This is not a problem to the airlines….it is simply a calculation. And this concept is not limited to the airline industry either.

  • http://flyicarusfly.com/ Fly, Icarus, Fly

    Wow. $1300 is a lot. Did they also get an offer to fly standby on the next flight or were all the flights leaving in a reasonable amount of time full?

  • Extramail

    Once you land, taxi in, wait for everybody to get all of the luggage out of the overhead bins, etc.

  • Extramail

    Rounding up to make it easier to add . . .

  • $16635417

    Last row on a full 100 seat aircraft, 45 minutes from the time we landed until I got to the curb for the rental car shuttle at O’hare a couple of weeks ago.

  • $16635417


  • http://twitter.com/lindabator Linda Bator

    You can’t.

  • http://twitter.com/lindabator Linda Bator

    You can’t purchase roundtrip standby tickets – you are only allowed to purchase a standby for a flight change to one you’ve already purchased.

  • $16635417

    Why a thumbs down?

  • http://travelingwinechick.com/ Elizabeth Smith

    He had a confirmed reservation on the flight and he was checked in for the flight, he just didn’t have a seat assignment because he refused to pay extra for an exit row seat. The maximum compensation for being involuntarily denied boarding is what he received.

  • http://travelingwinechick.com/ Elizabeth Smith

    It absolutely does. As I responded below, my friend had a confirmed reservation on the flight and he was checked in for the flight, he just didn’t have a seat assignment because he refused to pay extra for an exit row seat. The maximum compensation for being involuntarily denied boarding is what he received.

  • http://travelingwinechick.com/ Elizabeth Smith

    You can pay a fee to move up to an earlier flight, but you are not paying to stand by, you are paying for confirmed space on the earlier flight.

  • http://travelingwinechick.com/ Elizabeth Smith

    You can pay a fee to move up to an earlier flight, but you are not paying to stand by, you are paying for confirmed space on the earlier flight.

  • http://travelingwinechick.com/ Elizabeth Smith

    Yes, this happens. My friend had a confirmed reservation on the flight and he was checked in for the flight, he just didn’t have a seat assignment because he refused to pay extra for an exit row seat. The maximum compensation for being involuntarily denied boarding is what he received.

  • jim6555

    “Barbie jets” should be used only between small cities or to connect a small city to a hub. Many of us don’t realize that the use of smaller aircraft is a major factor responsible for air traffic congestion. How is that possible? Lets pretend that I’m an airline scheduling manager who knows that 600 seats per day are needed on my airline between City A and City B. My choices are to schedule either four 150 passenger Boeing 737-800 aircraft or twelve 50 passenger RJ’s. The RJ’s would bring in more revenue because business flyers would be able to book flights at more convenient times and will pay for the privilege of doing so. The downside of this approach is that instead of eight aircraft movements per day (four 737’s in and four 737’s out) we now have twenty-four (twelve RJ’s in and twelve out). The size of an aircraft makes little difference to the air traffic control system. Each RJ uses a takeoff or landing slot just like a much larger aircraft. The same amount of separation must be maintained between aircraft during flight. Bottom line is by ending the use of RJ’s between large city pairs, taxiway and in-flight delays will occur less frequently.

  • lorcha
  • flutiefan

    not true, Linda. i sell standby tickets at my airline.
    and yes, they can purchase round trip standby tickets.
    maybe no other airline allows this anymore, but mine does, i assure you.

  • flutiefan

    no, at my job passengers can actually purchase a standby ticket. they don’t have ANY confirmed reservation, and if a flight is sold out, they buy a standby ticket to hope to get on the flight if someone doesn’t show. i’ve been doing this for over 13 years now.

  • flutiefan

    my airline trusts me. but there are policies in place. otherwise one day you might be offered $100 and the next, $500. 2 different people may be offered 2 different amounts on the same flight. now THAT’S ridiculous. i’m authorized to do a lot, but upping compensation is not one of them.

  • bodega3

    We can’t sell standby tickets as we once could. Not sure if we are all using the correct terminology or not, but prepurchased standby tickets are not available online or with a TA. As close as I can get to one is to sell a ticket on a flight that no preassignable seats are available.

  • bayareascott

    Right. Yet you accuse the airline of trying to GET OUT of compensating passengers. But there is nothing there to back up your made-up claim.

  • andrelot

    If you have only 2 daily flights instead of 8 in a given route, for instance, you might start losing passenger to competitors that have flights at other more convenient times, or even losing passengers that drive to other airport to take a flight from there.