My best memory of Brussels airport is not its glorious status as one of the busiest hubs in Europe or home to Brussels Airlines, but of the cold night spent at the airport because I had been bumped off a flight. The next available flight was 10 hours away.
Checking into a hotel within the airport or in the city was not an option. I had already cleared with immigration, rendering my single entry Schengen visa invalid.
When an airline stops a passenger from getting on a flight for which they have a confirmed seat, they call it “denied boarding.” This term sounds more civil than “bumped off.” Whatever the airlines call this action, it is inconveniencing, disruptive and will most likely leave you with a bad taste in your mouth.
The circumstances under which one can be bumped off a flight may vary, with the most obvious and notorious being overbooking.
Many carriers overbook flights because they anticipate some passengers will not turn up (no-shows) or others may make last-minute cancellations and they don’t want to fly empty seats.
They give this as justification yet on the other hand, the same airlines have punitive terms and conditions for no-shows and last minute cancellations including zero refund.
So what remedies do you have when you get bumped off a flight?
The US and European Union have strict laws and regulations on denied boarding that airline operators have to comply with. These laws usually include very clear guidelines on compensation for both domestic and international flights.
However, in Africa and specifically in East Africa, some airlines, owing to the lack of consumer protection legislation, have weak internal policies and procedures for handling or compensating aggrieved customers in such situations.
Consumer protection legislation aside, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), of which most airlines are members, has very clear guidelines on this. Each member airline is expected to clearly stipulate and include their policy on denied boarding in their general conditions of carriage (passenger and baggage). This information can be found on an airline’s website and also on the “conditions of contract” section of the ticket.
In case of involuntary denied boarding, the responsible airline or its partners have a duty to ensure that the affected passengers are put on the next available flight. Usually for short delays of two to four hours, the ground staff should ensure that the affected passengers are provided with refreshments, meals and lounge access where applicable.
However, where such affected passengers are expected to wait for the next flight for more than six hours, the airline is expected to make arrangements for full board hotel accommodation at its cost.
In my case at Brussels airport, the handling staff at the airport were kind enough to give me an overnight amenity kit, a blanket and point me to a quiet section of the transit area in the airport to sleep. Being the last week of November, winter had set in so I did not get much sleep because the cold.
Denied boarding doesn’t only occur when airlines overbook flights, but can also happen when a carrier cancels a scheduled flight for which passengers have already checked in.
Similarly, one can get bumped off when flights are delayed and as a result you miss the connecting flight to your final destination despite having a boarding pass.
On the other hand, there are circumstances where the airline is not obligated to cater for bumped off passengers. It is important that passengers ensure they check in early for their flights to avoid being denied boarding, since the airline is not at liberty to accommodate or compensate for late check-in passengers.
Further, it is equally important to be at the boarding gate early enough or on time. There are numerous occasions where passengers assume that they cannot be denied boarding if they hold a boarding pass.
There are also certain circumstances where an airline may be at liberty to deny boarding especially when they have reason to believe that a passenger is a safety concern due to physical or mental unfitness to travel, or because of disruptive behaviour.
In this region, it is important to note that while most airlines will have some policies on denied boarding that they enforce feebly, when they are at fault, most of them are silent on compensation as there is no law binding them to compensate passengers.
This post was earlier published in The East African Magazine August 8, 2016 Why airlines bump you off a flight