Updated on May 15, 2024.
Fact checked
writing Written

An overbooked flight is every traveller’s nightmare. When you reach the airport and rush through customs and immigration, eager to board your plane, all of a sudden, the gate attendant tells you the flight is overbooked, and you will have to stay back. But why does that happen? Simply put, airlines overbook flights when they suspect several passengers are not going to show up, and instead of flying the plane with vacant seats, they oversell the flight to ensure all the seats are occupied.

But how can they refuse entry to a passenger who holds a valid ticket? Under European law, it is legal for airlines to overbook flights. This overbooking allows them to make a maximum return per flight and allows passengers to cancel their booking last minute without repercussions. But sometimes, this policy can lead to undesirable situations, such as when all the passengers of an overbooked flight show up. This article was updated in 2024.

Key Takeaways

  • Overbooking is a common practice among airlines to avoid revenue losses due to empty seats, but during peak travel seasons, it can lead to passengers getting bumped off their flights.
  • Airlines prioritize certain groups of passengers when deciding whom to bump, such as those who check in late or purchase discounted tickets. Passengers traveling first or business class, those who are frequent flyers, the elderly, families with young children, people with disabilities, and unaccompanied minors are less likely to get bumped.
  • If you get bumped off a flight, stay calm and get in touch with the airline’s representative. You are entitled to refreshments, phone calls, and compensation. Be sure to collect all necessary documentation and follow the proper procedure to file a claim for compensation.

What Are Oversold Flights?

Overselling flights is a common practice in Europe in which airlines sell tickets to more passengers than there are seats on the plane. This is done to avoid having vacant seats when the plane takes off. Overbooking a flight is perfectly legal in Europe. Overbooking often happens when airlines either cancel a previous flight and are not counting on all the passengers to show up for the next one, when there is a flight delay or any other kind of last-minute changes in the flight schedule and the airline wants to ensure maximum occupancy.

Most of the time, some passengers skip flights, and seats go vacant. Airlines use specialised computational software to calculate the approximate number of seats that might be empty based on data from previous flights and the number of seats that were empty per flight due to passengers not showing up last minute. This method, however, is not entirely accurate. While it predicts how many seats might go empty, it does not take into account the probability of all the passengers with confirmed bookings showing up. When all the passengers with confirmed tickets show up, some get bumped.

What Happens When Your Flight Is Overbooked?

By law, an airline has to request some passengers to give up their seats voluntarily. These volunteers are offered compensation in various ways, including cash, vouchers, a hotel room, a seat on the next available flight, or an upgrade to business class. Some companies even offer free return tickets to a destination of the passenger’s choice. The law does not dictate what can and cannot be offered as compensation and leaves it up for negotiation between the airline and passenger.

If volunteers willingly give up their seats in return for additional reimbursement, the flight takes off with the remaining passengers. However, the situation becomes problematic when no one wants to give up their seats willingly. In this case, the airline forcefully denies entry to passengers with valid tickets, and these passengers get ‘bumped’.

Bumped Passengers

can airlines overbook flights?

A passenger is said to be bumped when he or she is denied entry to the flight despite having a valid ticket. The European air travel laws protect the consumer in such a situation. While getting bumped is a hassle, you can make the most of the situation by ensuring you know your rights according to the law.

If you are bumped due to overbooking of a flight, read up on all that you are entitled to. A bumped passenger is to be offered refreshments and phone calls by the airline while they wait. Make sure to use these facilities. After that, the most common practice of airlines is to offer a seat on the next available flight. This offer is often sweetened by the addition of travel vouchers that amount to double or sometimes even more of the ticket value. If the deal on an alternative flight along with a travel voucher sounds good to you, you can take it.


Sometimes the second flight is too late, or the travel voucher is not lucrative enough, you can negotiate with the airline even more and improve the deal further. If not, you are entitled to monetary compensation, which may range from $280 (€250) to $700 (€600). This compensation can be claimed if you fulfil certain criteria and if you do not accept the airline’s alternative offers. If you want to understand the intricacies behind the EU air travel laws or want to find out more about getting money as reimbursement, visit our page and read up on everything there is to know about flight overbooking and your rights as a bumped passenger.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why do airlines overbook flights?

Airlines overbook flights to ensure maximum occupancy and revenue. They oversell seats in anticipation of no-shows, cancellations, or last-minute changes.

  • Is it legal for airlines to overbook flights?

Yes, it is legal for airlines to overbook flights in Europe. This is because it allows them to maximize their profits and ensures that flights are not operating with empty seats.

  • What happens when all passengers show up on an overbooked flight?

If all passengers with confirmed bookings show up on an overbooked flight, some passengers may be bumped or denied entry. Airlines may compensate volunteers who give up their seats, but passengers may be bumped involuntarily if no one volunteers.

  • What compensation can a bumped passenger receive?

Bumped passengers are entitled to certain rights, including refreshments and phone calls. At the same time, they wait for a seat on the next available flight, and potential monetary compensation ranges from $700 (€600) to $700 (€600), depending on the circumstances.

  • How can I avoid getting bumped from an overbooked flight?

To avoid getting bumped, try checking in early, choosing your seats in advance, and being flexible with your travel plans. However, there is no guaranteed way to avoid being bumped if the flight is overbooked.

  • What should I do if I am bumped from an overbooked flight?

If you are bumped from an overbooked flight, make the most of the situation by using the facilities offered by the airline and considering the compensation options available. It’s important to know your rights and understand the compensation you may be entitled to.


Claim up to $700 (€600) for your overbooked flight.

All countries
All airports
All airlines
Check Compensation