(NEXSTAR) — For most of us, flying is usually a breeze, from arriving at the airport to boarding the plane to picking up your luggage and moving on to your destination. Unfortunately for some, despite their best efforts, they may find themselves watching their plane take off without them.
Maybe it’s happened to you: You book your flight in advance, you pick your seat (if your airline allows it), and you arrive on time at your gate — only to find out your flight is overbooked.
An airline overbooking the flight (also known as “overselling” the flight) is completely legal, the U.S. Department of Transportation explains. The practice allows carriers to sell more boarding passes than there are seats on a plane to compensate for passengers that do not arrive for the flight.
When a flight is oversold, airlines will first ask for volunteers to give up their seat. If there aren’t enough volunteers, some passengers will be involuntarily denied boarding. This is more commonly known as being “bumped” from a flight.
Whether you volunteer or are bumped, the DOT keeps track of how many passengers are denied boarding because of oversold flights.
And based on the latest data, there is one airline that recently bumped more passengers than any others: Frontier Airlines.
According to the DOT’s latest Air Travel Consumer Report, released in late June, more than 2,440 Frontier passengers were involuntarily bumped from their flights between January and March of this year (data on oversold flights is only released quarterly). That equates to nearly 4 passengers being bumped for every 10,000 passengers total, the DOT report shows.
While that rate can seem large compared to other airlines — of the nine others in the report, none had a rate higher than .50 per 10,000 — Frontier was also among the carriers that enplaned the fewest passengers during early 2023, ranking as the third-lowest behind Hawaiian Airlines and Allegiant Air. Still, Hawaiian and Allegiant reported zero passengers being bumped between January and March.
Americans Airlines network, which includes American Airlines and its branded partners, reported the second-highest number of passengers involuntarily bumped at nearly 2,070. But by contrast, American Airlines served almost 44 million passengers between January and March — vastly more than Frontier’s 6.5 million.
Frontier Airlines didn’t immediately respond to Nexstar’s request for comment. The airline does, however, outline in its contract of carriage that those who are denied boarding will be provided with another Frontier flight to the same destination. Passengers that have already scanned their boarding pass and boarded the original flight also cannot be removed except for safety or security reasons (or other reasons outlined in the contract of carriage), the contract says.
Three airlines reported no bumped passengers: Hawaiian, Allegiant, and Delta Air Lines network. United Airlines network saw 32 passengers being bumped, a measly 0.01 for every 10,000. Southwest Airlines, which bumped the most passengers in 2022, bumped the third-lowest passengers in the first quarter at 610.
These five airlines bumped the most passengers:
- Frontier: 2,442
- American: 2,069
- Southwest: 610
- Spirit: 444
- Alaska: 66
Included in these statistics are “both passengers who received denied boarding compensation and passengers who did not qualify for compensation because of one of the exceptions in the Oversales rule,” the DOT explained. Those exceptions include a passenger being accommodated on another flight set to arrive within an hour of the original flight; a passenger failing to comply with ticketing, check-in, or reconfirmation procedures; a smaller aircraft being substituted; or a passenger being denied boarding due to safety-related weight restrictions on smaller aircraft.
There were, however, more than 66,800 passengers that were voluntarily denied boarding. As the DOT report explains, these passengers opted to give up their seats on an oversold flight in exchange for compensation.
Nearly 29,900 passengers were voluntarily bumped by Delta Air Lines network, which includes Delta Air Lines and branded partners, in early 2023. That’s more passengers than the next three airlines combined.
According to the airline’s contract of carriage, Delta will provide those that volunteer to give up their seats, or are involuntarily bumped, a seat on the next available flight at no additional cost or a flight on a different airline. If a passenger’s substitute flight isn’t until the next day, Delta covers hotel accommodations for free, or provides a credit voucher for future Delta purchases up to $100 if accommodations aren’t available.
Though it can be frustrating, airlines are allowed to oversell flights “to a certain extent,” according to the DOT. They are not, however, allowed to use “unjust or unreasonable prejudice,” like your race or ethnicity, to bump you from a flight. If you are bumped, your airline is federally required to give you a written statement that explains your rights and how it determines who is bumped.
Most passengers who are bumped tend to receive compensation that is “equal to double the one-way price of the flight they were bumped from,” according to the DOT.
While the thought of being bumped from a flight can be worrisome, it’s important to note that very few people actually are. Only about 5,690 passengers of the more than 195.2 million enplaned in early 2023 were bumped, DOT data shows. It’s far more likely that passengers will volunteer to give up their seats, which may allow you to catch your flight after all.