Passengers wait in line at a Southwest Airlines tcket counter

Carriers trying to fill planes to the max routinely overbook flights to account for no-shows, leaving some travelers without seats. But those bumped passengers have rights.  Based on the numbers, America’s major airlines are doing a better job of getting us to our destinations on time and with our luggage in tow — assuming we can get on the flights.

Not only is the rate of lost luggage lower than it has been in years, the on-time performance for the nation’s biggest airlines reached a record 88.6% in November, the best rate since the Bureau of Transportation Statistics began keeping track of the numbers in 1987.

But there is a growing trend that spells trouble for travelers: More passengers are getting bumped from flights.

In the first nine months of 2009, the rate of ticketed passengers who were denied boarding was 1.22 per 10,000 travelers, compared with 1.12 in the same period in 2008.

That equates to nearly 54,000 passengers involuntarily bumped in the first nine months of 2009, up from about 47,000 fliers in the same period in 2008.

The bumping increase is largely a result of the slumping economy, which has reduced airline demand and prompted carriers to eliminate flights and fill planes to the max — or beyond. Indeed, it is no secret that airlines routinely overbook planes because they expect that some passengers won’t show up for a flight.

“The carriers overbook to account for the no-show factor,” said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Assn., a trade organization of the nation’s largest airlines. “Airline seats are perishable, and once the seat has left the terminal the opportunity to sell it is gone.”

How much airlines overbook varies by carrier, route and even the makeup of the passengers.

Business-class passengers who are flying for meetings or conferences are more likely to miss a flight because of scheduling conflicts than a family that has been planning for months to visit grandma for the holidays. Thus, airlines may overbook more seats on commuter flights heavily favored by business travelers.

“It literally varies on a flight-to-flight, day-to-day basis,” said Tim Winship, publisher of, a website that reports on the industry’s frequent-flier programs. “It’s a dynamic formula rather than a set formula.”

Overbooking is not an exact science, and when airlines miscalculate the “no-show factor” they must bump passengers from full flights.

Still, you have rights if the flight you are scheduled to board has been overbooked.

Airlines are required by federal law to first try to get passengers to voluntarily give up their seats. That is when you can make the most of the situation.

The airline gate agents will initially try to entice passengers to give up seats with an offer of a free ticket on a later flight plus cash or a voucher for a future flight.

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Passengers can haggle with the gate agents, Winship said. You can even ask for a free meal voucher or a pass for the airlines’ VIP lounge in addition to a free airline ticket. Don’t be surprised if the agent tries to low-ball you. The airlines are trying to spend as little as possible to get you to your destination.

But don’t get too greedy in your demands, Winship warned, because the gate agents may reject your offer, knowing that other passengers may be willing to give up their seats for less.

“It’s greed versus fear,” Winship said.

Things get a bit more complicated if an airline can’t get enough passengers to give up seats voluntarily.

By law, if the airline denies you a seat because of overbooking but arranges to put you on another flight that arrives within an hour of your original arrival time, the carrier is not obligated to compensate you at all.

If, however, you are bumped and the airline gets you on a flight that arrives within two hours of your original arrival time, the carrier must compensate you with 100% of the value of the ticket, up to a maximum of $400.

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