Being denied boarding due to an overbooked flight is a nightmare scenario for many passengers. But if your airline doesn’t let you board your flight, and you haven’t done anything wrong, you are entitled to compensation at least. Knowing your air passenger rights will help you decide what to do next.
The practice of overbooking flights is more common than you might think in the travel industry. Airlines can sell more seats than they have available – as they assume that not all passengers will show up for the flight. If all passengers do show up, some may be denied boarding or “bumped” off the flight. Luckily there are laws in place to ensure passengers are properly compensated if that happens.
Overbooking flights is the practice of selling more tickets than there are seats on a plane. Airlines are allowed to do this as they know that it is unlikely that all passengers will show up at the airport. In fact, some estimates put the number of “no-show” passengers between 5% – 15%.
Airlines usually pay careful attention to each of their routes’ statistics and only sell as many extra seats as are likely to come available. However, they don’t always get it right, which may result in passengers with valid tickets being denied boarding.
Being denied boarding may cover a range of circumstances. If you are denied boarding through no fault of your own, the laws in the US and EU will ensure you receive compensation for the inconvenience. However, if you are denied boarding due to something that is your fault these laws will not apply. Examples include not having the relevant documents, arriving too late at the gate, or acting in an abusive manner.
While overbooking is more common in the US than in Europe, it does still happen, so you should be aware of your rights. Europe has strong air passenger rights thanks to regulation EC 261. This regulation is clear; passengers are entitled to up to €600 compensation if they are denied boarding against their will.
There are a couple of important points to be aware of though:
Only involuntary boarding denials are covered.
If you volunteer to surrender your seat in exchange for a refund, an alternate flight, or other benefits, you also surrender your right to compensation under EC 261. Likewise, if you compromise your own ability to board the flight, you lose your right to compensation. Some examples of this would be:
Showing up too late to board
Not having the proper documentation (such as a boarding pass)
Creating a security, health, or safety concern
European and many international flights are covered
EC 261 applies to all passengers on flights within Europe, as well as flights that depart from a European airport, and those that land in Europe on a European airline. This chart makes the coverage clear:
|Itinerary||EU air carrier||Non-EU air carrier|
|From inside the EU to inside the EU||✔️ Covered||✔️ Covered|
|From inside the EU to outside the EU||✔️ Covered||✔️ Covered|
|From outside the EU to inside the EU||✔️ Covered||❌ Not Covered|
|From outside the EU to outside the EU||❌ Not Covered||❌ Not Covered|
EC 261 also applies in Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and the so-called “outermost regions” (French Guiana and Martinique, Mayotte, Guadeloupe and La Réunion, Saint-Martin, Madeira and the Azores, and the Canary Islands).
You are entitled to your compensation straight away.
Compensation for overbooked flights is due immediately once you are denied boarding. And we mean right there, at the airport. That is in addition to being entitled to re-routing on an alternate flight to your destination.
Don’t worry if you didn’t get your money at the airport though. AirHelp can still help you claim afterward.
In general, overbooking flights is more common in the US, so there are strong laws to protect passengers and ensure they get compensated if they are denied boarding. In fact, passengers on international flights from the US could be entitled to up to $1,350.
Here’s what you need to know:
Only boarding denials due to overbooked flights are covered.
US regulations are quite strict: passengers are only eligible for compensation if they are denied boarding due to the airline overbooking the flight in question. In these situations, airlines must ask for volunteers to surrender their seats before they can start bumping passengers against their wishes.
Again, only involuntary boarding denials are covered.
If you do voluntarily give up your seat you surrender your right to compensation under US regulations. However airlines often offer refunds, alternative flights, and other benefits to encourage volunteers – so you’ll need to decide for yourself if it is worth it.
Flights departing from the US are covered
US regulations on overbooking apply to flights with US carriers between US cities, and international flights originating in the United States.
Provided your flight is eligible, the compensation amount is dependent on two factors:
1. Travel distance
2. Whether your flight is within the EU or not
We love charts, so here’s one that explains how much you’re eligible for under EC 261, based on your flight details:
|All flights 1,500 km or less||€250|
|Internal EU flights over 1,500 km||€400|
|Non-internal EU flights between 1,500 km - 3,500 km||€400|
|Non-internal EU flights over 3,500 km||€600|
The European regulations on air passenger rights cover a lot more than compensation. We’ve included a few highlights below that haven’t been covered in detail yet.
Obligation to inform passengers of their rights
Your first basic right is to be informed about the content of EC 261. Every airline has to display information on passengers’ rights at their check-in counters in every airport where they operate.
Right to reimbursement or re-routing
If you are denied boarding, in addition to compensation for your loss of time, you are entitled to either:
A full or partial refund of your original ticket and a return flight to your point of departure, if needed.
The earliest possible alternative transport to your final destination.
A new ticket to your final destination at a later date of your preference, subject to seat availability.
Any transport between airports has to be arranged at the expense of the air carrier.
Right to care
The carrier must provide you with meals and refreshments during the delay as well as access to communications, including two telephone calls, telex or fax messages, and emails. If overnight accommodations are necessary, they must provide you with a hotel room and transportation to and from the airport.
Upgrading and downgrading
If you are offered an alternative flight and placed in a higher class than the one you booked, the air carrier cannot charge you any additional payment. On the other hand, if the class of the alternative flight is lower, you can get a reimbursement between 30% and 75% of the price you originally paid.
Your right to compensation under EC 261 does not affect your right to request further compensation. This rule does not apply in cases where passengers have voluntarily surrendered their reservations. Of course, the amount you are entitled to under EC 261 may be deducted from whatever additional compensation you receive.
For all of the legal mumbo-jumbo, straight from the source, you can also read the actual text of EC 261.
So long as you are eligible, the compensation you are owed will be dependent on two factors:
1. The difference in scheduled arrival time at your destination* compared to your original itinerary, if you accept re-routing on another flight
2. Whether your flight is a US domestic flight or an international flight
This chart will explain best, just check your flight details:
|Length of delay|
|Type of flight||0-1 hours||1-2 hours||2-4 hours||4+ hours|
|Domestic||$-||200% of one-way fare to your destination*- not to exceed $675||400% of one-way fare to your destination*- not to exceed $1,350||400% of one-way fare to your destination*- not to exceed $1,350|
|International||$-||200% of one-way fare to your destination*- not to exceed $675||400% of one-way fare to your destination*- not to exceed $1,350||400% of one-way fare to your destination*- not to exceed $1,350|
* “Destination” means your final destination or the first place where your journey includes a planned interruption with a stop-over of more than four hours.
If the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, you are entitled to 400% of the one-way fare price, not to exceed $1,350 as well as any optional fees paid as part of your reservation (e.g. bag fees, seat upgrades, etc.).
You’re entitled to cash, so don’t feel obligated to accept travel vouchers or any other alternative forms of compensation.
If the airline doesn’t let you board your flight when you haven’t done anything wrong, it can be incredibly stressful. But don’t worry – you do have rights.
Follow our step-by-step guide to make sure you get the information you need to enforce your rights, and claim the compensation you’re entitled to. If you’re flying in Europe, AirHelp can also help you to claim for up to €600 per person.
1) Do not volunteer to give up your seat in exchange for vouchers or perks.
If you do, you could be giving up your right to any additional compensation. Of course, if the airline makes a compelling enough offer, you may prefer to take it. The final decision is up to you.
2) Hold onto your boarding pass and any other travel documents.
If you don’t have your boarding pass, you can use any flight document with a booking reference number. This number is assigned to your flight reservation by the airline and is a six-digit code, which may include both letters and numbers.
3) Ask why you’re being denied boarding.
The most common reason is being “bumped” due to an overbooked flight, but there are other reasons you may be denied boarding, as well. This information is important down the line if you decide to file a claim.
4) Request an alternate flight to your destination.
Worldwide, most airlines will offer you another flight to your destination. In addition, in Europe, regulation EC 261 gives you the option to request a refund of your fare and a return flight to your original point of departure, if necessary.
5) Request compensation for your boarding denial.
In both the US and EU this is covered by the law. Provided you’re eligible, the airline should pay you compensation in addition to offering you a re-routing on an alternative flight. And in Europe, EC 261 says your compensation should be paid immediately, right there at the airport.
6) Ask if the airline will cover your meals and refreshments.
If you are forced to wait at the airport longer than planned, the airline can provide food and drinks to keep you comfortable. It’s not just good hospitality, in Europe it’s a requirement.
7) Ask the airline to provide you with a hotel room.
If you’re being grounded overnight while waiting for an alternate flight to your destination, check whether the airline will cover this. Especially if you’re in Europe where they should cover any reasonable costs for accommodation, as well as transportation to and from the airport, if necessary.
8) Keep your receipts if your boarding denial ends up costing you extra money.
Whether it’s missing out on a pre-paid reservation, hotel, rental car, or other unexpected costs, passengers on international flights may be able to recover expenses caused by travel disruptions.
9) See if your boarding denial is eligible for compensation.
Use our eligibility checker to quickly and easily find out what you’re entitled to.
For flights covered by EC 261 compensation for being denied boarding is due immediately!
(So ideally you won’t have to go through the claim process.)
However, if you didn’t get paid at the airport, not to worry ⎯ you can still file an EC 261 claim after the fact.
If the airline isn’t keen to pay you compensation straight away, you can submit a claim later. But even when the law is on your side, the airline might not be enthusiastic – or particularly quick – about paying you.
To give your claim the best chance of succeeding, here’s the documents and details you should collect:
Hold on to your original documents related to the disrupted flight and new documents issued for any alternative flights – such as e-tickets and boarding passes.
Ask the ground crew for information about what is causing the issue. Take screengrabs or photos of any written communications.
Keep a few notes about the disruption, including the actual arrival time at your final destination.
Any information you can collect – like photos of the departures board at the airport or any communications from the airline confirming the disruption will be useful for your claim.
Many passengers feel they don’t have the time or expertise needed to make their airline pay out when they’ve been denied boarding. But AirHelp can make the claim process simple and straightforward. We can submit a claim under EC 261 on your behalf. We will build your case for compensation and handle all the back and forth with the airline.
We’re the largest and most successful flight compensation company in the world, and we’ve been helping air passengers since 2013. Your compensation claim will be in safe hands.
To start your claim you just need to provide a few details about your flight.
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AirHelp is a part of the Association of Passenger Rights Advocates (APRA) whose mission is to promote and protect passengers’ rights.
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