Airlines in the US are within their rights to kick you off an overbooked plane, even if you've paid for a ticket and don't want to leave. According to United employees, a "computer" picked a man who said he was a doctor and needed to see patients in the morning to be dragged off a flight this weekend. How does the computer know who to pick? The airlines' policies offer some clues.
Photo by Anne Worner.
Each airline has a "contract of carriage" that lays out the rules you have to abide by. By law in the US, if an airline bumps you, you're entitled to a certain amount of compensation in cash -- unless you made a deal to take a voucher or less money. Refusing to get off the plane won't help you, since the airlines can deny boarding, any time, to people who they deem are making trouble.
United's policy is the vaguest of the four big US airlines. People with disabilities, and unaccompanied minors, get to keep their seats whenever possible. After that, it's all up to the mysterious computer:
The priority of all other confirmed passengers may be determined based on a passenger's fare class, itinerary, status of frequent flyer program membership, and the time in which the passenger presents him/herself for check-in without advanced seat assignment.
So you're the most screwed if you're flying coach, don't belong to the frequent flyer program, and checked in late. Because they mention itinerary, giving yourself less time between flights may mean you're less likely to be bumped -- but then you're at risk of missing flights due to delays. (You also might not have the option, depending on where and when you're flying.) Of all these factors, checking in early is the one thing within your control that doesn't involve forking over extra cash to the airline.
Delta's policy spells out the details a little better. If you're "elite" status or have a first-class, business-class or corporate ticket, you get priority over the rest of us plebs. Within any category, though, "passengers are prioritised first by class of service and then by time of check-in."
American prioritises people who would see "hardships" from being bumped, including children and people with disabilities. Then come first class and business class passengers, and so on. To decide among the people at each level, you guessed it: "Passengers within any category will be boarded in the order of presenting themselves for check-in."
Southwest is a little different: Instead of check-in order, they use your "boarding position" -- basically, your place in the imaginary line for seats. Checking in early helps you get a good boarding position, so our advice still applies. Boarding position is the only thing that will save you, by the way:
Carrier shall deny boarding in reverse order from the order in which the Passengers' boarding positions were secured (i.e., the last Passenger who receives a boarding position will be the first Passenger denied boarding involuntarily in an oversale situation), with no preference given to any particular person or category of fares.
If you check in early, walk nicely off the plane when asked, and request money, that's the best way to handle the situation. Sadly, there's no way to ensure that you actually get the same aeroplane ride you paid for. Enjoy your flight!