What should I do if asked to give up my airline seat voluntarily?

Passengers have received as much as $10,000 for agreeing to take another flight. Get the "Plane Truth" on what to know and watch out for.

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In 2023, more than 333,000 airline passengers were bumped – denied boarding – on flights in the United States. More than 26,000 of those travelers were bumped involuntarily — possibly throwing their plans into chaos. The vast majority volunteered to give up their seats when asked. 

Bumping isn’t likely to subside anytime soon. Passenger volume was up 10% last year among the 10 largest airlines and this year is expected to be even busier.

Airlines are fuller and fuller these days. Airlines that are oversold generally ask for volunteers and offer another flight plus compensation of varying amounts to those who give up their seats willingly.

Volunteering to get bumped from a flight can be lucrative, particularly in recent years.   

For example, in 2022, Delta oversold a flight from Grand Rapids, Mich., to Minneapolis, Minn. Eight travelers ended up with $10,000 to give up their seats. On another Delta flight, this one in July from LaGuardia Airport in New York to West Palm Beach, Fla., travelers were offered up to $3,000

Airlines seem more willing to offer generous amounts after an awful incident in 2017, when a doctor was knocked unconscious while being dragged off an overbooked United Airlines flight.

The $10,000 and $3,000 offers involved passengers who, like the doctor, were already on board. It’s more customary for travelers to get offers of a few hundred or maybe $1,000 or so for relinquishing their seat before they board.

The Plane Truth: Here’s what you should know if your airline asks you to volunteer to be bumped

  1. How often do airlines bump people involuntarily?

Airlines generally don’t want to bump people involuntarily because it can be bad PR, can generate complaints and cost the airline more. Still, the percentage of passengers bumped involuntarily in 2022 nearly doubled from 2021.

  1. Are airlines required to provide compensation if they bump passengers involuntarily? 

For passengers who are bumped involuntarily, the airline must provide compensation if the person will be delayed one hour or more. 

  • For domestic flights with a one- to two-hour delay, the compensation is double your one-way fare, up to $775. 
  • If the delay is more than two hours, the compensation is quadruple your one-way fare, up to $1,550. 
  • The compensation levels are higher for international flights.
  1. Should I volunteer to be bumped from my flight? 

If you’re preparing to board an oversold flight and the airline offers volunteers compensation that exceeds those amounts and a new flight that works for you, consider taking it.

  1. Can I tell an airline I’ll volunteer if needed?

If you’re on the fence, you can let the airline know you may be willing, depending on the terms. You don’t have to take the airline’s first offer. It may go higher if there aren’t enough volunteers.

  1. Should I accept an airline’s compensation before I have a new ticket?

Before you agree, make sure you have a new itinerary and ticket that don’t ruin your plans. 

  1. Can I negotiate with an airline for the compensation for volunteering to be bumped?

In addition to the compensation you’re promised, you can ask for other considerations such as a direct flight instead of your connecting one, or a first-class ticket instead of economy seating, or a hotel voucher that you can use sometime, even if you won’t be stranded overnight.

  1. Am I more likely to be bumped from a smaller flight? 

If it’s a small flight and you think you might get bumped involuntarily, you’ll likely get more money and other perks for volunteering. Your decision might also be informed by which airline you’re flying on.

  1. Are there reasons I might be likely to be picked to get involuntarily bumped?

Airlines often involuntarily bump passengers who had the lowest-priced tickets (less expensive to bump them) or checked in last (the airline can justify this) or aren’t a frequent flyer member. So if you think you fall into one of these categories, you might consider a good offer, vs. one that could be less than what you’re guaranteed under involuntary bumping.

  1. Is involuntary bumping becoming more common?

Involuntary bumping has been on the rise the last several years. The rate in 2022 was the highest level since 2017. It did improve a bit in 2023 but it’s still higher than pre-pandemic.

  1. Which airline has the worst record for involuntary bumping?

By a wide margin, Frontier had the worst record on involuntary bumping in 2023, with the ratio of those denied boarding involuntarily more than 10 times the overall average for the top 10 airlines. Ratios are calculated per 10,000 boarded passengers.

At Frontier, 10,123 were denied boarding involuntarily, while 11,399 agreed to be bumped. Frontier’s record was six times worse than the next closest airline, American.

Frontier had 3.3% of all boarded passengers but 39% of involuntary denied boardings in 2023. Looking at it another way, American Airlines had nearly seven times more boarded passengers than Frontier, but Frontier had almost the same number of involuntarily bumped passengers as American.

As for complaints, Frontier had 200 complaints filed against it regarding bumping. That represented 21% of the 972 total bumping complaints in 2022. In 2022, 1,336 travelers filed complaints about bumping – indicating they likely weren’t satisfied with whatever happened. That’s more than four times as many as in 2021 and more than three times as many as in 2019. 

11. Which airline takes the most volunteers?

In 2023, Delta had the largest number of volunteers for bumping, 146,136 travelers; Southwest, United and American all had about 35,000 to 42,000.

Interestingly, Delta and Allegiant didn’t have a single consumer bumped involuntarily last year (although three passengers were bumped involuntarily from one of Delta’s marketing partners,) and Hawaiian had only five the entire year. This suggests those airlines make pretty good offers to attract volunteers.

PIRG: Giving passengers the Plane Truth and working for Flyers’ Rights

PIRG for years has been standing up for passengers’ rights by advocating for stronger consumer protections, exposing practices that harm consumers, holding regulators accountable for enforcement and offering travelers tips and information about their rights.


Teresa Murray

Consumer Watchdog, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers’ health, safety and financial security. Previously, she worked as a journalist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio’s largest daily newspaper. She received dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, a National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis, and a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected 15 million customers nationwide. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.

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