Getting bumped from your flight — a situation that occurs when an airline overbooks — has become a more common experience for travelers during this chaotic summer of flying. Unfortunately, sometimes getting bumped or rescheduled after canceled flights comes with getting separated from the people or the pets you’re flying with. Shifting your travel plans because of a flight bump is frustrating enough, but being separated from your travel companions can really mess with logistics.
The bad news is that it’s happening everywhere this summer, and there’s no way to escape it. Last month, Air Canada sent a Toronto man’s cats to California without him, and Qantas booked a 13-month-old baby and her parents on separate flights. Unfortunately, if you’re flying, it could happen to you.
So what do you need to know if you find yourself in this situation? We talked to experts to get some insight.
Why do people get separated from their family or pets?
Airlines have contracts with passengers called “conditions of carriage,” which lay out the terms of an airline’s responsibility when flights are canceled or delayed, along with other rules, travel industry lawyer Jeff Ment said. In these contracts, some airlines agree to book their passengers on the next available flight, even if it’s on another airline, he pointed out, but some will only book passengers on their own flights.
In almost every situation, passengers who are on a flight that is canceled by the airline can get a refund if they don’t take their rebooked option and then make their own decision about how they want to get to their destination.
Based on the contracts of carriage, airlines have the upper hand in these situations, Ment said, but a passenger is allowed to refuse the rebooking until the airline is able to accommodate the entire group. Ment said there’s no law that requires airlines to keep families or pets and owners together.
There are faults in the system that complicate this, though. Booking systems don’t recognize that young children can’t just do their own thing, airline analyst Bryan del Monte said. “They treat every passenger as if they’re fully functional and capable of being separated.” With that being said, there are laws about seating minor children with parents and seating families together, del Monte added, but since it’s considered “guidance” rather than a basis for fines, airlines are generally careless about it.
How often does this happen?
Despite several recent headlines about incidents, there isn’t any data to show how often this happens, unfortunately. Another unknown? How much money the airline industry in the United States makes from seat reservations when people are paying to sit together. The government doesn’t require airlines to report those figures, del Monte said.
In 2016, Congress approved an extension of the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill — known as the Families Flying Together Act — which requires carriers to ensure that children under age 13 can sit next to a family member at no additional cost, del Monte said. In response, the Transportation Department issued a notice to airlines encouraging them to seat children under 13 with an adult who is traveling with them.
“It’s an awful thing to have travelers broken up, particularly when they’re kids involved,” said aviation expert and consumer advocate William McGee.
What can I do to stop this from happening to me?
“The system is at its breaking point,” McGee said. Years ago, if part of a group of travelers were bumped, they would generally wait around for the next open flight and get on that one together. Today, however, the circumstances are less certain, and waiting to fly with the person you’re traveling with could end up causing even more issues. You might have to take the seat when the space is available, McGee said, even if it means splitting up for the flight, because finding two available seats later on could be a tricky feat.
There isn’t much you can do to stop yourself from ending up in this kind of situation. Del Monte recommended that travelers still make an effort to do all they can to get ahead of it, like booking early, “but it won’t preclude you having a bump.” Even del Monte himself has gotten bumped from flights he booked a month or more in advance.
“The only thing people can do is buy travel insurance,” he said. “When the airline screws you over, it’s going to be travel insurance that pays for that extra hotel stay and the extra expenses,” he added. “It’s going to be travel insurance that compensates you for all the real expenses when your plane is suddenly canceled or delayed.”
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