That disaster scenario is on many people's minds today, following the viral spread of a video showing United Airlines brutally removing a passenger who'd refused to give up his seat after the airline tried to bump him from his flight. Unlike most involuntary bumping, this passenger already was assigned a seat and had boarded the plane before the airline sought to deny him the seat for the flight.
What can you do to avoid getting in a bad situation with airline travel, especially at the airport when you're ready to fly? The obvious first answer is never to physically resist a request by an airline or airport employee or law enforcement or security personnel. Even if you're right and they're wrong, physical resistance immediately puts you in the wrong... and gets you really, really hurt. So don't do that.
The second answer is to come prepared for a worst-case scenario. Start by knowing your rights as an airline passenger. Everyone who flies in the United States should read and bookmark the U.S. Department of Transportation's Consumer Guide to Air Travel. This page offers great advice for finding the best airfares on the best flights to suit your needs. It also details your rights (or lack of them) if the airline delays or cancels your flight, or bumps you from a flight because it sold too many seats.
Basically, you have no rights to any compensation if your U.S. domestic flight is delayed or cancelled, beyond a refund of the ticket in case of cancellation without a rescheduled, replacement flight. In the United States, you are entitled to compensation only if you are bumped from a flight without your consent.
In that case, if the airline can get you to your final destination within an hour of your original arrival time, you are owed nothing. If you are delayed less than two hours, the airline must pay you 200% the price of your ticket segments to your final destination that day, up to $675. If you are delayed more than two hours, the airline must pay you 400% the price of your ticket segments, up to $1350. If you make alternate transportation to get to your destination instead of taking a later flight, you also are due a refund of the ticket, on top of the compensation.
Airlines can offer you whatever they want to entice you to voluntarily give up a seat you've bought and checked in to. But in all my years flying, I've never seen an airline offer passengers four times the airfare, in cash, plus a later flight. Airlines typically offer vouchers — not cash — and the use of vouchers often is so heavily restricted that passengers find they can't use them on any future flights they'd like to take before the vouchers expire. My advice? Never take the offered compensation to get bumped from a flight. You are owed more for that inconvenience.
Once you learn your rights, take the next step to protect yourself by knowing the rules you must follow to get onto your flight and your final destination. First, make sure that you are booking your ticket to the correct airport on the correct date. Don't be that guy who wants to fly to Sydney, Australia and ends up in Sydney, Canada.
If you are flying to a city with multiple airports, make sure you know which one your flight is for. Many times, cheaper tickets are for far-flung exurban airports many miles from the attractions you want to visit. If you have the extra time and can get a cheap ride in from that airport, those deals can be worth it. But be sure to factor in that expense when comparing airfares on flights that get you to a more convenient airport. Do the same when comparing flights that include free checked or carry-on bags with ones that will charge you for those. Consider on-time percentages for various flights, too. (That's covered on that excellent DOT page, linked above.) It's always better to fly early in the day, and on non-stop flights, to minimize the chance for delays.
Once you are ticketed, every airline has multiple deadlines you must meet before allowing you admission to its airplane. First, you must check in for your flight by a specified time before its scheduled departure. If you are checking bags, you must present them to the baggage counter by a certain time. And you must by physically present at the gate and be ready to board by a certain time — typically 10-30 minutes — before your flight is scheduled to leave. All of these deadlines will be written somewhere on your confirmation after you buy a ticket.
None of these deadlines are negotiable, and if you miss them, the airline can call you a no-show and cancel your ticket. Avoid that disaster by checking in for your flight online — you can do this up to 24 hours in advance, so you've got no excuse. Then make sure that you get to the airport in time to get through whatever line there might be to check bags and still meet that deadline. If you do that, then don't dawdle in getting to the gate, you should make that deadline with time to spare.
If you find your flight is delayed, and that's going to cause you to miss a connection, don't just queue up to wait in a long customer service line at the airport. Call the airline's customer service number while you wait in that line. Sometimes, the phone reps can get you rebooked before you get to front of the queue. Being on the phone and in line gives you two chances to connect with an airline rep, instead of just one.
Your third option is to use the airline's lounge. Now, if you're not flying first or business class and don't have elite status with the airline's frequent flyer program — or you are flying from a smaller airport than doesn't have a lounge — you won't have access to that facility. But if you are traveling through a larger airport, most airlines will sell you a day pass to use their lounge, which might have free food and wifi in addition to comfortable seating, clean bathrooms and — this is the important part — customer service agents who can make magic happen. If you are looking at a long delay, a day pass to the airline lounge might be a good investment in getting access to the customer service you need... or at least a more comfortable place to wait if no one really can help you get on an earlier flight.
My wife and I also have airline-branded credit cards that we use when we book on those airlines. That gives us free checked bags on flights, access to earlier boarding groups, better frequent flyer benefits, and free or discounted lounge access. (I also suspect that moves us down the 'hit list' for involuntary bumping, as well.) The relatively high annual fees on the cards can be a reasonable trade-off for these benefits if you fly even once a year.
Pack your carry-on or personal bag (the one that will fit under the seat in front of you), with enough essentials to get through a couple days of airport delays or time at your destination without your checked luggage, in case the airline loses it. You don't want to be left helpless without your bags.
Finally — and if you follow no other advice I give you, do this — approach every airline or airport employee you encounter with a smile and positive attitude. No matter how badly things go, a smile and friendly tone gives you a much better chance for getting help than being surly. I've gotten better flights and upgrades when people in front of me have been told "there's nothing we can do" simply because I employ my best Disney Cast Member sweetness every time I speak with a gate agent or flight attendant. No one wants to help a jerk. So don't be one.
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