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What to do if you get bumped from your flight

United Airlines jets are parked on the tarmac

United Airlines jets are parked on the tarmac at Newark Liberty International Airport, in Newark, N.J. on July 22, 2014. Photo Credit: AP / Julio Cortez

Concerned about what to do if you get bumped from an upcoming flight?

News coverage has swirled around United Airlines after a video of a passenger being involuntarily removed from a flight and getting injured in the process went viral this week. The airline was attempting to make room for several airline employees and the man had refused to give up his seat, the airline said. The man remains hospitalized, according to media reports.

But bumping passengers is not uncommon or illegal, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The tactic is most frequently used on overbooked flights, where airlines oversell tickets expecting some passengers not to show up for the flight.

However, you as a passenger have rights, too. Here are some steps you can take to make the process easier if you are asked to give up your seat.

What are my rights as a passenger? Can an airline really force me out of my seat?

According to the DOT, passengers have specific rights when it comes to delays, cancellations and being bumped from flights. Primarily, airlines must follow a specific procedure and ask for volunteers to take another flight before further action is taken.

If no one volunteers, then the airline can choose passengers to bump involuntarily.

Airlines may choose to bump passengers by fare class or based on check-in time. In the case of the United flight, passengers were bumped based on several factors, including fare class, check-in time and frequent flyer status, United said in statements following the incident.

Regardless of method, those passengers must be provided with a statement of their passenger rights, a description of the airline’s bumping selection policy and compensation. The amount of compensation is not dictated by law and can vary by airline.

What should I do if I am selected to be bumped involuntarily?

“You should just follow the instructions, as awful as that sounds,” said air travel expert Brett Snyder. “You just need to comply. You can argue once you are back at the desk.”

Fighting on the plane is never the right answer, said Snyder, the founder of Cranky Concierge, an air travel assistance service.

“Airlines have the ability to choose who can and cannot fly on that airplane,” he said. “You’re not going to win any battles if you don’t cooperate.”

What kind of compensation am I entitled to?

U.S. law requires that passengers bumped from American airline companies are offered compensation, but how much and what kind is up to the airline. If you’re volunteering, it could be a free ticket or travel voucher or it could be a check.

For example, Delta Airlines offers credits toward the purchase of a future ticket.

The DOT is more specific when it comes to involuntary bumping: You have the right to a check if you’re delayed more than an hour. The amount depends on what you paid for the ticket, the length of your delay and who makes the alternative travel arrangements.

Compensation can run as high as 400% of your one-way fare, $1,350 maximum, if the airline fails to make travel arrangements for you, or if you arrive more than two hours later (four hours internationally) than planned at your destination, according to the DOT.

Certain conditions may disqualify you from compensation, such as plane size, the reason for bumping and missing airline check-in deadlines. Check with the DOT for more details.

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