Involuntary Denied Boarding: What It Means and How You Should Be Compensated 

Did you know that buying a plane ticket doesn’t guarantee you a seat on the plane? 

In fact, data from the Department of Transportation shows that 333,000 passengers were denied boarding last year — or roughly one for every 2,600 tickets sold. 

While 307,000 of those people volunteered to give up their seats, 26,100 were involuntarily denied boarding, aka “bumped.”

If this happens to you, you do have rights — including receiving compensation.

Erika Taught Me

  • Involuntary denied boarding is when an airline denies you a seat, usually because they sold too many tickets.
  • Bumping isn’t illegal, but airlines are required to ask for volunteers first. 
  • If you’re bumped, you’re entitled to up to $1,550 in cash compensation plus a free rebooking on the next available flight.

. . .

What Does Involuntary Denied Boarding Mean? 

Involuntary denied boarding, also known as “bumping,” is when an airline forces a ticketed passenger to give up their seat before boarding. 

Bumping may seem illegal — or at the very least, kinda shady — but it’s actually a very common industry practice. 

The reason is that airlines know that 100% of passengers aren’t going to show up 100% of the time. People often move their flights, cancel at the last minute, or just don’t show. 

READ MORE: What Happens If You Miss Your Flight?

So, some airlines started selling, say, 400 tickets for a flight with 350 seats. Some airlines are rumored to sell as many as 50% more tickets than seats, depending on the flight. 

The practice of overselling tickets actually benefits passengers because it enables the airlines to sell tickets at a lower cost. But sometimes 400 passengers do show up for a 350-person flight, which puts the airline in an awkward position. 

By law, airlines must admit their mistake and ask for volunteers. If not enough volunteers come forward, the airline has no choice but to start bumping people. 

But being bumped isn’t all bad, since the law also entitles you to some compensation — maybe more than you think. 

@erikakullberg

What airlines don’t want you to know about getting “bumped” 🤯 #lawyer #travel #money

♬ original sound – Money Lawyer Erika

Why Do Airlines Bump Passengers? 

According to the Department of Transportation, there are plenty of reasons why passengers might be bumped from flights, including but not limited to: 

  • The airline oversold your flight
  • Your seat is needed for a Federal Air Marshal
  • Aircraft change (e.g., larger to smaller with fewer seats)
  • There’s a weight or balance issue with a smaller plane
  • Being downgraded on the same flight (though you are entitled to a refund for the price difference) 
  • Being bumped from a charter flight or a plane with fewer than 30 seats
  • Being intoxicated or under the influence of illegal drugs
  • Being disruptive or unruly
  • Having an offensive odor that is not caused by a disability or illness

It’s important to note that only the first two cases entitle you to compensation. The rest are just bad luck — or not the airline’s fault. 

What Are the Laws for Bumping? 

The DOT makes it plain that “The business practice of bumping is not illegal.”

But ticketed passengers have rights, and therefore the airlines must follow a strict set of rules if they want to bump someone. 

1. The airline must ask for volunteers

They’ll typically offer to rebook you on the next flight for free plus a small travel voucher, but this is just the opening offer. 

“There is no limit to the amount of money or vouchers that the airline may offer,” says the DOT. 

2. They can only start bumping if there aren’t enough volunteers

Each airline is allowed to establish its own criteria for who to bump first as long as it doesn’t involve race, ethnicity, or other prejudice. 

Broadly speaking, folks who checked in late, paid a cheap fare, and/or have no status with the airline are more likely to get bumped. 

Whatever the reason, the airline must provide a written statement describing your rights and how the airline decides who gets bumped. 

3. They can’t bump you after you’ve boarded

According to the DOT, as long as you’ve checked in for your flight before the airline's check-in deadline and an agent has scanned your ticket, they’re not allowed to deny you permission to board. 

You can still volunteer, but they can’t legally remove you. 

4. You may get compensation

If you’re bumped because the airline oversold your seat (or gave it to an Air Marshal), you may be entitled to compensation. 

What Are You Entitled To If You’re Bumped? 

If you’re bumped, the airline must offer to rebook you on the next available flight to your destination. 

In addition, you’re legally entitled to a minimum amount of compensation known as denied boarding compensation (DBC). 

Your minimum DBC is based on the delay you experience as a direct result of being bumped. 

Domestic flights

  • For delays of 0-1 hours: $0
  • For delays of 1-2 hours: 200% of your one-way fare
  • For delays of 2+ hours: 400% of your one-way fare

International flights

  • For delays of 0-1 hours: $0
  • For delays of 1-4 hours: 200% of your one-way fare
  • For delays of 4+ hours: 400% of your one-way fare

So, if you’re bumped from a domestic flight with a base fare of $300 and the next flight isn’t for three hours, you’re legally entitled to receive at least $1,200 in cash. 

Plus, the airline must pay you within 24 hours — most will cut you a check while you’re still in the airport. 

Curiously, the DOT seems to allow airlines to set arbitrary limits on denied boarding compensation, stating, “Airlines may limit the compensation to $775 if 200% of the one-way fare is higher than $775 [and] $1,550 if 400% of the one-way fare is higher than $1,550.” 

Still, $775 isn’t a bad deal for a 90-minute delay, especially if you’re not in a rush. 

How DOT’s new “automatic refund” rule affects bumping 

In April 2024, the Biden-Harris Administration announced a new rule clamping down on “corporate rip-offs” in the airline industry.

The new rule states that passengers are entitled to automatic refunds for delays, cancellations, baggage delays, being downgraded, and other inconveniences. 

Airlines can no longer place a maze of red tape between you and your refund. No more sitting on hold, submitting pointless forms, or getting duped into settling for a voucher — airlines must now refund your original method of payment automatically within seven days if you paid by credit card (20 by cash).

READ MORE: Flight Delay Compensation: What You’re Entitled to and How To Get It

But it’s unclear how these new rules affect bumping since the language implies that only specific types of refunds are automatic. 

So here’s what I’d advise: 

  • If you’re bumped, be assertive in asking how and when you’ll be compensated. 
  • If you choose a refund over being rebooked, ask the gate agent when your total fare (plus taxes) will be refunded to your original method of payment. 
  • If you qualify for denied boarding compensation, ask them to print a check for you right then and there. 

What Are You Entitled To If You Volunteer Your Seat? 

Short answer? Sky’s the limit. 

There are countless reports on Reddit and various travel forums of passengers being offered $3,000 or more to give up their seats. 

Bumping paid passengers is generally a bad look and airlines may be extra generous to keep customers happy — and off of social media. 

In 2017, when United Airlines passenger Dr. David Dao refused to give up his seat on an overbooked flight — citing a need to see patients the next day — United had him forcibly (and some say illegally) removed from the plane. 

Once the video of the harrowing incident went viral, United Airlines’ stock lost $255 million in value overnight. United eventually settled with Dr. Dao for $140 million. 

Most airlines would rather negotiate with volunteers than risk another PR crisis. 

So, when they call for volunteers to take another flight, here are some steps to maximize your potential payout: 

1. Confirm when the next available flight is

Before you even start negotiating, make sure the next available flight fits within your travel plans. 

Plus, the knowledge that the next available flight isn’t for two, eight, or even 24 hours can help you negotiate better compensation. 

2. Start with a high offer

You can always start at $3,000 cash and see what they say. If there’s a long delay between flights and they need multiple volunteers, try $5,000. 

If the agent tries offering miles, a travel voucher, or a gift card, ask for cash instead since the former options may have terms or expiration dates attached. 

3. Ask them to toss in extras 

Before committing to a cash offer, ask if they can upgrade you to business class on your next flight, provide a meal voucher, and book you a nice hotel. 

Airlines typically have “secret menus” of extras they can add to sweeten the deal, so you’ll want to ask to see what else you can get. 

4. Know when to take the deal and run 

Anecdotal evidence suggests that passengers begin seriously considering offers of $1,000 or more. 

So if you negotiate $2,500+ hotel on the front end, you may just want to cash in your chips and get out of the casino before someone else settles for less. 

The Bottom Line

Getting bumped is a bummer, but if you know your rights you can get some serious cash to spend at the nearest Wolfgang Puck Express. Better yet, you can volunteer for a later flight before you risk getting bumped and negotiate your way to an even sweeter bonus. 

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I'm an award-winning lawyer and personal finance expert featured in Inc. Magazine, CNBC, the Today Show, Business Insider and more. My mission is to make personal finance accessible for everyone. As the largest financial influencer in the world, I'm connected to a community of over 20 million followers across TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. I'm also the host of the podcast Erika Taught Me. You might recognize me from my viral tagline, "I read the fine print so you don't have to!"

I'm a graduate of Georgetown Law, where I founded the Georgetown Law Entrepreneurship Club, and the University of Notre Dame. I discovered my passion for personal finance after realizing I was drowning in over $200,000 of student debt and needed to take action-ultimately paying off my student loans in under 2 years. I then spent years as a corporate lawyer representing Fortune 500 companies, but I quit because I realized I wanted to have an impact; I wanted to help real people and teach them that you can create a financial future for yourself.

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Advertiser Disclosure

Our aim is to help you make financial decisions with confidence through our objective article content and reviews. Erika.com is part of an affiliate sales network and receives compensation for sending traffic to partner sites, such as MileValue.com. This compensation may impact how and where links appear on this site. This site does not include all financial companies or all available financial offers. Terms apply to American Express benefits and offers. Enrollment may be required for select American Express benefits and offers. Visit americanexpress.com to learn more.

Advertiser Disclosure

Our aim is to help you make financial decisions with confidence through our objective article content and reviews. Erika.com is part of an affiliate sales network and receives compensation for sending traffic to partner sites, such as MileValue.com. This compensation may impact how and where links appear on this site. This site does not include all financial companies or all available financial offers. Terms apply to American Express benefits and offers. Enrollment may be required for select American Express benefits and offers. Visit americanexpress.com to learn more.