Dealing with delayed, canceled and overbooked flights

By Philip Wagenaar
This item appears on page 76 of the February 2008 issue.

by Philip Wagenaar, M.D. (second of two parts)

Last month, I discussed the many causes of delayed and canceled flights and suggested a few tactics on dealing with the problem. This month, I continue my discourse.


Since federal law does not require compensation to passengers whose flights are delayed or canceled, you are stuck with only a few options if you don’t rebook.

• Ask for a refund of the airfare.

• Accept one or more of the amenities (which vary by company) that a number of the larger carriers voluntarily provide. These are listed on the website of the DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division at; click on “Airlines Customer Service Plans.” (Don’t hold your breath!)

• Note that many travel insurance policies do not cover “acts of God,” such as weather delays.


Another cause of your not being able to board is a flight’s being oversold, a strategy that airlines use to compensate for no-shows. While not illegal, it results in passengers’ being left behind, or “bumped.”

In case of overbooking, the DOT requires airlines to ask for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for compensation and a later flight. Before you accept, consider the following:

1. Have you already checked any luggage? If so, don’t accept the offer, as your suitcases most likely will travel on the plane on which you originally were scheduled. You don’t want them to float around at your destination for hours on end. If you have only carry-on luggage, you have no problem.

2. When is the next departure on which you can get a confirmed seat? You don’t want to be on standby.

3. Will the airline provide a hotel room, free meals, phone calls and ground transportation while you are waiting for your next flight?

4. Will it offer you money or free future air travel?

As there are no set rules, you can negotiate with the agent, who has been given guidelines by his superiors. If you are offered a free ticket, ask about all its restrictions, expiration dates and blackout periods plus how far in advance you have to make a reservation on a future flight.


If there are not enough volunteers, the airline will deny you boarding, despite the fact that you have a confirmed reservation. You have now been promoted to the lofty status of the involuntary “bumpee.” (My understanding is that the chances of a senior’s being bumped is remote.)

In this case, the DOT requires the carrier to give each bumpee a written statement explaining their rights, which must include the procedure the company uses to allocate seats on an oversold flight.

Compensation is subject to the following DOT regulations.

1. The carrier must provide a seat on the next available flight. However, if you so desire, you can make your own arrangements to your final destination. If you do this, you can either request a refund for the unused ticket or retain it for use on a future trip.

2. There is no compensation if the airline can get you to your final destination (including later connections) within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time.

On the other hand, if it gets you there within two hours on a domestic trip (or within four hours on an international flight), the carrier must recompense you with an amount equal to the one-way fare to your final destination, with a $200 maximum.

If you are more than two hours late (or more than four hours internationally) or if the airline does not provide you with alternate travel arrangements, the compensation doubles.

In short. . .

< 1 hour → no payment;

1-2 hours (1-4 hours, int’l) → $200 max., and

> 2 hours (> 4 hours, int’l) → $400 max.

To remember, at a critical time, that you are entitled to money only in this particular scenario, think of IBM, “Involuntary Bumping Money” or make up a better mnemonic yourself.

Unfortunately, you are still not in the driver’s seat, as your reimbursement is subject to the following additional DOT rules.

a) You must have a confirmed booking (a ticket as well as a seat, and you should not be wait-listed).

b) You also must show up at the ticket counter and/or gate within the time limit set by the carrier. If you miss this deadline, you may have forfeited not only your reservation but also your right to compensation if the flight is oversold.

c) If you are bumped because the airline substitutes a smaller aircraft, the company is not required to pay.

d) The regulations apply neither to charter flights nor to planes carrying 60 or fewer passengers. They do not pertain to international departures to the United States or ones between two foreign cities. For bumpings that occur in an EU country, ask the airline for details or contact the DOT.

e) For more information on bumping, read the DOT’s publication “Fly Rights” at (under “Travel Tips & Publications”) or write to the Office of Aviation Enforcement & Proceedings (400 Seventh St. SW, Room 4107, Washington, D.C. 20590).

Note that at the time of this writing, the DOT is considering an increase in the mandatory compensation requirement for overbooked passengers.

As the last passengers to check in are usually the first to be bumped, even if they have met the deadline, the best way to reduce that risk is to get to the airport early.


If you feel you have been offered insufficient money at the airport, you can file a complaint with the airline’s consumer office at its corporate headquarters.

It is most effective to limit the letter to one page and to keep the letter businesslike (no angry words). Include the names of employees with whom you dealt and copies of all your travel documents, and state whether you have suffered monetary losses. Inform the company what you expect as a reasonable settlement.

For a list of airline contacts, go to

If you get no results, you customarily will have 30 days from the date on the check to decide if you want to accept the compensation. You also could refuse the check and take the company to small claims court.

Other options are to file a complaint with the DOT at the Aviation Consumer Protection Division, C-75, U.S. Department of Transportation (400 Seventh St. SW, Washington, D.C. 20590; 202/366-2220).

If you are still not satisfied, enlist the help of your state, city or county consumer affairs department (look under the appropriate heading in the telephone book) or contact any of the “Hot Lines” or “Action Lines” offered by some TV stations, newspapers or radio stations.

If you are still not satisfied, enlist the help of your state, city or county consumer affairs department (look under the appropriate heading in the telephone book) or contact the “Hot Lines” or “Action Lines” featured by some TV/radio stations and newspapers.


Carry sufficient food and extra medication, in easily available form, in case the plane is stuck on the tarmac.

In short. . . checking the weather forecasts and calling the airline (or perusing its website) for schedule changes, as well as leaving enough time for connections, will facilitate a smooth itinerary.