Should You Give Up Your Seat on an Overbooked Flight?

United Airlines caused a stir last week when footage taken by other travelers of local authorities brutally dragging a passenger from his seat before a flight from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky, went viral.

While the company’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, apologized and vowed to halt using law enforcement to remove passengers already aboard planes to secure seats for employees, the incident has spurred questions about airline policies and prompted heightened scrutiny over the industrywide practice of overselling flights. But while last week’s incident took the internet by storm, it’s not all-too-uncommon for carriers to bump passengers due to overselling tickets or, like last week, accommodating crew members flying for work. According to the Department of Transportation, 40,629 passengers were involuntarily denied boarding from their U.S. flights due to overbooking in 2016.

[See: 7 Secret Tricks to Scoring a Cheap Business-Class Seat.]

By law, airlines have the right to remove passengers from their planes for a variety of circumstances and must outline their policies in their customer agreement in a contract of carriage. “Airline contracts of carriage do state that your seat isn’t guaranteed, and there is language in them to cover refusing to fly someone at [the airline’s] discretion,” explains George Hobica, founder of “Passengers have far fewer rights than they imagine,” he adds.

But flyers do have some federally-mandated rights. For this reason, U.S. News tapped aviation experts to help you navigate air-travel policies and learn how to negotiate top dollar on an oversold flight.

Want to Avoid Getting Bumped? Get to the Top of the Priority Boarding List

DOT policies require that the airline first ask for passengers to volunteer to switch flights before compensation rules for involuntary bumping go into effect, says Charles Leocha, chairman and co-founder of Travelers United, a nonprofit advocacy group in the District of Columbia that works with the DOT and Congress on passenger rights issues. Whether you’re at risk of getting bumped is determined by each carrier’s priority boarding list, which defines groups of passengers that will be removed in the event of an oversold flight and is written (in the fine print) in the contract of carriage, Leocha explains. Despite contrary belief, the order in which passengers are selected to be involuntary denied access is not random, he explains. For example, United’s priority list is based on factors such as the fare purchased, frequent flyer status, the check-in time and the itinerary.

The most important step is getting a seat assignment, cautions Daraius Dubash, who runs the travel advice site Million Mile Secrets. To limit your odds of getting involuntarily bumped, he recommends checking in at least 24 hours before your flight, getting to the boarding gate on time with a seat assignment and avoiding no-frills basic economy fares. With status, you’re less likely to be bumped, explains Gary Leff,…

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