We’ve all seen the viral videos. Innocent passengers being dragged off planes, berated, losing seats they paid for on overbooked flights.
When this happens, we expect airlines to compensate us. But exactly how much money would it take to satisfy passengers when things go wrong on a flight?
Airline PR and customer service teams seem to be working overtime these days. This spring, United and Delta promised up to $10,000 in compensation to passengers who lose their seats on overbooked flights after high-profile incidents.
Well, a new survey from PolicyGenius found that just over 1 in 5 Americans (20.7%) say no amount of money makes up for losing their seat on a flight – more people than would accept any individual dollar amount.
An additional half of survey respondents (48.5%) would require between $2,000 and $10,000 to feel compensated for the inconvenience. Nearly seventy percent (69.2%) say that compensation less than $2,000 isn’t worth the hassle of being removed from an oversold flight, though travel vouchers for overbooked flights are routinely offered for well below this amount.
People just want to fly
The survey asked what compensation level would make being removed from an oversold flight worth the trouble (for leisure and business travel), as well as having to sit next to a crying baby for an entire flight. Respondents chose between compensation amounts of $250, $500, $1,000, $2,000, $5,000, and $10,000 — or that no amount would make it worth it.
The big takeaway? Americans of all stripes, across different income groups and regions, don’t want to give up their seats. More than half (55%) required at least $5,000 (or wouldn’t be satisfied with any level of compensation) to make up for the hassle.
In fact, respondents were more ready to accept compensation to sit next to a screaming baby for a flight’s duration than to be bumped from the plane. Nearly 13% of respondents said they consider $250 a good deal for putting up with all that crying, while only 3.5% said that same amount of money made up for missing their flight.
Income doesn’t matter
Passengers earning over $200,000 and under $35,000 were the two groups most likely to say no amount would make getting kicked off a flight worth it. A whopping 37% of passengers making under $35,000 and 27% making over $200,000 said no amount would make up for getting involuntarily bumped for a flight.
Parents are more willing to settle
People with kids were generally more accepting of less compensation than people without them. Twenty-percent of parents said they would settle for $1,000 in compensation while 14% said no amount would be worth it. People without kids, conversely, were less forgiving: 17% of non-parents said they would be satisfied with $1,000 in compensation and nearly 24% said no amount would make up for the inconvenience.
Have seat, will travel
Business or leisure, compensated or not, people just want to get on their flight and be on their way. We’ve seen this play out in all of the headline-grabbing airline horror stories over the past few months. David Dao was brutally dragged off of his United flight rather than give up his seat for United employees. The Schear family was kicked off an overbooked Delta flight after refusing to give up a seat they had already paid for. (Both airlines have since apologized for the incidents.)
It’s easy to say that the worst-case scenarios are getting the most attention, and perhaps they are. According to J.D. Power and Associates, overall customer satisfaction with airlines actually increased to its highest level ever from April 2016 to March 2017. (Notably, the infamous Dao incident occurred in April of this year.)
But bumping, specifically, remains a sore spot for North American travelers. J.D. Power found denial of boarding and rebooking to another flight had the greatest negative influence on a person’s overall satisfaction level. And people don’t like flight delays in general, with J.D. Power scores falling by 101 points when a traditional carrier postpones a flight and by 59 points when a low-cost carrier does the same.
Why bumps happen
Getting “bumped” from a flight is part of the airline practice of overbooking. Basically, an airline books more passengers than there are seats so that, when the inevitable person who sleeps through their alarm misses the flight, the seat doesn’t go to waste.
Of course, there are times when everyone who bought a ticket shows up, and that’s when someone’s losing their seat — voluntarily or involuntarily.
Sadly, you likely won’t get any travel vouchers for sitting next to a crying baby (or someone who hogs the armrest). But getting bumped from a flight isn’t uncommon. According to the Department of Transportation, 46,000 passengers were involuntarily bumped from an oversold flight in 2015, and 505,000 were voluntarily bumped.
Compensation for bumping varies widely by airline, but a recent Reuters analysis of DOT data found major airlines were, on average, paying involuntarily bumped passengers anywhere from $560 to $1,600.
What to know about your air travel rights
There are no regulations for the compensation airlines are required to provide for passengers who volunteer to take a later flight. The amount and type of compensation is an agreement between the airline and the passenger.
Involuntary bumps are a different story. The DOT has specific guidelines around what an airline must do if they’re making room on a flight.
- If you’re arriving at your destination one to two hours after your original arrival time, you have to be compensated 200% of your one-way fare, up to $675.
- If you won’t be arriving for more than two hours after the original arrival time, compensation requirements jump to 400% of your fare, up to $1,350.
It’s important to note Congress is currently contemplating a bill that would prohibit involuntary bumping after a passenger has already boarded the plane. If that passes, we may see a change in how airlines approach voluntary bumps – but that’s still a ways off.
What to do if you get kicked off a flight
For now, there’s no guarantee you won’t lose your seat, but there are a few things you can do to minimize the odds or make the most of a bad situation.
- Check in early. Every airline has their own process for deciding who gets bumped (in the Dao case, he was ostensibly chosen at random) but some start from the last person to check in and work their way up. Check in early to avoid getting cut.
- Sign up for an airline’s loyalty program. Some airlines take frequent flier status into account when choosing whom to boot, so go ahead and enroll, particularly if you fly a single carrier. Also worth nothing: While a co-branded airline credit card itself won’t block a bump, the better ones on the market help you earn extra miles — and, therefore, expedite elite status. Just be sure you can afford any annual fee the card comes with, if you’re trying this strategy.
- Haggle for voluntary bumps. Involuntary flight bumps have compensation limits, but voluntary ones don’t. Test the waters and see what the airline will offer for you to give up your seat. They might be willing to spend a little more to avoid the bad publicity that comes with forcing people off a flight. Plus, since United is offering up to $10,000, who knows how things will turn out. To that end, you should also…
- Know your travel schedule. Have an extra day to spare, or don’t mind flying out the next morning instead? Your flexible schedule can be worth a lot of money if you’re willing to voluntarily give up your seat. Know what wiggle room you have in your travel plans so you can pounce on a deal if it becomes available.
- Don’t settle for a voucher. The most common form of compensation from an airline is a voucher for a future flight. But if you’re involuntarily bumped, you have the right to ask for a check instead. If you’ve soured on an airline, or don’t see yourself flying again in the near future, you’re better off getting a check that you can cash.
- Know your rights. If getting bumped isn’t your choice, you’re entitled to a certain amount of compensation. Be familiar with the guidelines outlined above (you can find even more info on the DOT’s website). That way, you don’t find yourself on the unfair end of a negotiation and walk away with less than you deserve.
PolicyGenius commissioned Google Consumer Surveys to poll a nationally representative sample of 1,500 adults online from July 13 to July 15. The survey’s margin of error is between 3% and 5%. ↩︎