Odds of Getting Bumped

On average, roughly 2.5 million passengers fly into and out of U.S. airports daily, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. With that many people trying to venture across the skies on any given day, does a ticket really guarantee your passage? According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, overbooking is considered legal, and most airlines do this to make up for any possible no-shows.

So how many people don’t make it to their destination? To answer this question, we looked at passenger and flight data of major airlines from the first quarter of 2016 through the fourth quarter of 2017 to determine just how often people are bumped from flights or asked to change seats they’ve already paid for. We also looked at which airlines paid the most to displaced passengers. Keep reading to see what we uncovered.

Does It Pay to Be Bumped?

While overbooking is considered legal, passengers are not always entitled to compensation by the airline if bumped from their flight.

In the event of an oversale, compensation is mandated by the DOT on domestic trips when ticketed passengers must be bumped from a flight. By protocol, the airline will look for volunteers first. If there are not enough volunteers, the airline carrier will then begin to bump some of its passengers.

An involuntarily bumped passenger is a ticketed customer who is unwillingly removed from a flight. Passengers bumped against their will are entitled to compensation, minus a few exceptions. Those exceptions include missed check-in deadlines (which can vary by airline and flight) – if the flight is full, you could lose your reservation and your right to compensation. If you are bumped from a flight you were on time for, the airline is not mandated to compensate you as long as they arrange substitute transportation that is scheduled to get you to your final destination within one hour of your original arrival time.

Which airlines pay the most to these bumpees, though? Bumped customers were most generously compensated by Alaska Airlines and Virgin America, with average payouts of $1,222 and $968 respectively (the two airlines have since merged).

Compensation for Bumped Passengers Is on the Rise

In 2008, United Airlines had the highest average compensation to bumped passengers at $350. In 2017, JetBlue Airways had the highest, with a whopping average of $854.

Of the five most-boarded airlines (American, Delta, JetBlue, Southwest, and United), Delta Air Lines seems most reliable for above-average payouts to its bumped passengers. As of 2017, Delta was the top-paying carrier, and its compensation remained almost always above the majority since 2010.

JetBlue Airways peaked with a highest average compensation in 2015 at about $990. However, in just a year’s time, this amount plummeted by nearly $700 and then climbed back to $854 in 2017.

All five carriers offered greater compensation than in 2016 and now look to be steadily rising again. For most of these airlines, it may be one of the best times for compensation in the case of being bumped.

Passengers Are Getting Fewer Upgrades


Considering the same most-boarded airlines – excluding Southwest due to offering only one seating class – the likelihood of being upgraded on a flight was fairly low in the first half of 2017: less than 25 passengers per 10,000 boardings.

The peak for upgrades occurred in 2009 when United Airlines bumped up more than 200 customers per 10,000 boardings. Over the same period, JetBlue offered the lowest number of both upgrades and downgrades to its passengers.

In 2017, passengers were more likely to be downgraded as opposed to upgraded on Delta. The airline upgraded 69,990 passengers overall and downgraded another 126,710.

Over the past decade, a peak in downgrades was also reported by United Airlines. In 2011, the carrier downgraded nearly 36 passengers per 10,000 boardings. In 2017, Delta Air Lines had its highest number of downgrades, with more than 38 per 10,000 boardings.

Bump Up Your Travel Accommodations

Enough time, money, and stress go into getting to the airport, passing through TSA, and getting to your gate on time. You shouldn’t have to stress about whether your ticket really guarantees you a seat.

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Using the Department of Transportation’s quarterly reports titled “Passengers Denied Confirmed Space,” we were able to explore compensation and rates of bumps and upgrades.

For this project, we used the following columns from the available data:

  • 3: Total number denied boarding involuntarily
  • 6a: Upgrades
  • 6b: Downgrades
  • 8a: Amount of compensation paid to passengers who were denied boarding involuntarily and were given alternate transportation within the meaning of section 250.5
  • 8b: Amount of compensation paid to passengers who were denied boarding involuntarily and not given alternate transportation

It is important to note that, by law, airlines are not required to compensate passengers who are placed on a flight that arrives within an hour of their original arrival time.

The formula for assessing how much was paid out per passenger denied is based on an average paid out from Q1 of 2016 through the end of Q4 2017.

  • Average (Amount Paid Were Denied Boarding Involuntarily And Were Given Alternate Transportation Within The Meaning Of Section 250.5 + Amount Paid to Those Denied Boarding Involuntarily And Were Not Given Alternate Transportation/Total Number Denied Boarding Involuntarily)

Upgrades and Downgrades were listed in the data source and provided by the Department of Transportation Bureau of Statistics. To calculate the rate per 10,000 boardings, we looked at the total rate for each year, not the average among the quarters.

  • (Upgrades/Total Boardings)*10,000
  • (Downgrades/Total Boardings)*10,000

Fair Use Statement

The information found in this project is available for noncommercial use. So go ahead – let this project take flight across the internet, but make sure you link back to the authors so they receive proper credit.


This data was provided by the Department of Transportation. We attempted to verify all data via each airline mentioned but received no response as of the date of publication. If any updates or corrections are received, we will update the project accordingly.

It’s important to note that this project is based on reports from the Department of Transportation and each Airline’s reports to them as well as calculations of these reports (Rate per 10k bumps and Average Amount Paid per Bump). The amount paid out to bumped customers is federally regulated and has a variety of factors that affect it. One of the biggest factors is length of arrival delay and how much the cost of a ticket was. Since we do not know specific information on ticket holders and fares paid, the numbers seen for average amount paid out per bump should be taken lightly. This amount was not reported directly by the airlines, but instead was figured by the formula stated in the methodology above.

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