‘Bumped off’ a flight? Know your rights

Anand Kalyanaraman | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on June 16, 2015



Though fliers are compensated, it’s about time that airlines offered more, writes Anand Kalyanaraman

Bags packed, tickets checked, you start early and reach the airport in time for your flight. To your dismay, the lady at the check-in counter apologises and says you can’t board the plane. On protesting that you have a confirmed ticket, you are told that the flight has been overbooked. In industry lingo, you have just been ‘bumped off’.

What are the chances of a flier facing this bummer of a situation? Not very high, but quite possible, show statistics from the airline regulator DGCA. In April, 1,016 passengers were denied boarding on flights within India. That may not seem a lot, when juxtaposed with the nearly 63 lakh passengers who took to the domestic skies that month. But in such cases, just a few could be a few too many, especially when you have to travel urgently.

DGCA data shows that Air India and Jet Airways have been denying boarding to a few hundred passengers every month (see table). The other domestic carriers generally don’t seem to deny boarding to passengers, though there have been instances of AirAsia and IndiGo doing so. To our queries, IndiGo responded that as a policy, it does not overbook flights. SpiceJet and Jet Airways acknowledged that they overbook, while Air India and AirAsia did not respond.

Now, if your airline overbooked and you are denied boarding, here’s the bad news: you can’t drag the airline to court – the rulebook allows this practice. But then the consolation: you are entitled to compensation.

The ‘no-show’ hedge

Overbooking – selling more seats than available – is a global phenomenon prevalent in sectors with ‘perishable seats’, such as hotels, taxi operators, and, of course, airlines. It’s done so that seats don’t go empty. Says a Jet Airways spokesperson, “Customers have the ability to cancel or rebook their travel until a couple of hours before departure. Moreover, an airline seat is a perishable commodity. Overbooking is an industry wide practice done for seat optimisation, anticipating last minute cancellations by confirmed passengers.”

Amber Dubey, Partner and India Head of Aerospace and Defence at global consultancy KPMG, concurs, “Overbooking is perfectly legal. Many airlines overbook to ensure effective use of capacity, especially during peak-hour flights and peak seasons. It is to ensure that they don’t lose revenue due to ‘no show’ of passengers.”

How do airlines decide the number of seats to be overbooked on a flight? It’s analytics at play and not just a random figure pulled out of the hat. The Jet Airways spokesperson says, “The airline uses sophisticated algorithms to predict cancellation and no-show pattern on specific routes and overbooks some flights by a small number accordingly.”

Elaborates Bharath Mahadevan, an independent aviation consultant, “The sophisticated software systems of airlines forecast how many passengers will cancel, change dates or not show up for the flight. These systems adjust the overbooking on a flight depending on how far you are from departure. For example, for a Chennai to Singapore flight that is two months away, the system may predict, based on historical data, that a lot of passengers will speculatively book and cancel. So sometimes, on a flight that is two months away, the overbooking can go up to 100 seats (that is, there could be 500 confirmed passengers on an aircraft with 400 seats).

"This is adjusted as you move closer to departure; on the day of departure, the system simply tries to predict how many passengers won’t show up (so, for example, 410 confirmed passengers could be booked on an aircraft that can hold 400 seats). It’s when the 401st passenger shows up that there is denied boarding.” Now, going by the fairly large number of passengers being denied boarding every month by Air India and Jet Airways, it does look like that their forecasting systems could do with some fine-tuning.

Denied flight? Get paid

Thankfully, airlines have to compensate passengers who get ‘bumped off’. Says Dubey, “In cases of denied boarding, airlines are bound by DGCA regulations to provide compensation. This ranges from providing alternative arrangements, refund of fares and/or monetary compensation for the inconvenience caused.” The SpiceJet spokesperson said the airline offers alternative flights to such passengers, while Jet Airways responded that it adheres to the DGCA rules.

The Jet Airways spokesperson added, “With its extensive network, the airline is able to immediately provide alternative travel options to the guests on the same day, if required. As a policy, we do not overbook the last flight out to avoid inconvenience to guests.”

The DGCA rule – Civil Aviation Requirements Section 3 Series M Part IV – spells out what needs to be done when passengers with confirmed bookings who have reported for the flight within the specified time are more than the seats available.

The airline has to first ask for volunteers to give up their seats to make them available for other booked passengers. In exchange, the airline may offer such volunteers benefits and facilities, at its discretion.

But if the number of volunteers is inadequate and boarding is denied to passengers against their will, the compensation rules kick in. For starters, a passenger denied boarding gets refund of the air ticket cost or an alternative, comparable transportation arrangement.

In addition, as financial compensation, the passenger gets ₹2,000 for flights with block time of up to one hour, ₹3,000 for flights with block time exceeding one hour and up to two hours, and ₹4,000 for those more than two hours. Block time is the total time from when an aircraft moves for taking off until it comes to rest at the end of the flight. Passengers denied boarding on flights of foreign airlines flying to or from India are also entitled to compensation. It will be the higher amount as per the rules in the airline’s country of origin or as per the DGCA rules. In the US, financial compensation for passengers denied boarding has been increased sharply to dissuade airlines from overbooking rampantly. Maybe, it’s time for DGCA too to increase compensation - the rules were last revised in January 2011.

Meanwhile, you can improve your chances of not being ‘bumped off’ by reporting for the flight well on time. Says Dubey, “To avoid being offloaded, it is important for the passenger to know and abide by the policies of the airline, especially for peak hour or peak season flights.” Better early than denied seems to make sense.

Published on June 16, 2015
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