Bumped from a flight? It could land you a windfall

Airline fees grow, seats shrink

If you get bumped from your Thanksgiving flight, it could ruin your holiday but make your holiday season.

Why? The airline could be forced to pay you a small fortune for the transgression, said Johnny Quach, chief product officer of AirHelp, a company that claims compensation for disrupted travelers. "Americans being denied boarding is one of our bigger markets. The payouts are quite high," he said.

Involuntarily bumped

Specifically, If you're denied boarding on a domestic U.S. flight because the airline overbooked the plane and wasn't able to convince enough passengers to "volunteer" to take another flight, you can be eligible for compensation of up to $1,350. The exact amount depends on the value of your ticket and ultimate delay in arrival to your final destination.

For instance, if the flight you're rebooked on arrives within two hours of the previous flight's planned arrival, you can be compensated up to 200 percent of the cost of your one-way ticket to a maximum of $675. If the new flight gets you to the destination more than two hours after the planned arrival, you could be entitled to up to four times the cost of your one-way ticket, or $1,350, whichever is less.

Luggage delayed, damaged or lost

If the airline also loses your bags — perhaps because they got to the destination on the original flight, unlike you — the airline could owe you even more.

According to the Montreal Convention, which governs flights in 120 participating countries including the U.S., passengers whose luggage is lost, damaged or delayed can be due as much as 1,131 in "special drawing rights." This airline-only currency trades just like other country currencies. On Nov. 19, the value of one SDR was $1.38 U.S. dollars. So the maximum value of a lost, delayed or damaged bag would be $1,560.

If the items in your bag are worth more, you could potentially get higher compensation. However, you would have had to notify the airline when you checked your bags, and the airline could have imposed a fee for additional baggage insurance.

What if the bag was just delayed? You can ask the airline to compensate you for the items you had to replace while you were waiting.

Flight delays

Whether you're due compensation simply because your flight gets delayed depends on where you're going to and coming from, and the reason for the delay.

If a delayed results from the weather, no compensation is due. Airlines aren't required to compensate passengers for flight delays and cancellations that are outside of the airline's control.

If a flight is delayed because of an airline mess-up, what you're due depends on your destination and your airline. Most carriers publish their "conditions of carriage" online. If you check American Airlines' conditions, for instance, they note that the airline will try to get you to your destination as soon as possible, even if that means booking you on a competing airline.

If the airline has no other flight for you, and you're going to be waiting past midnight, it says it will pay to put you up in a hotel.

If you can't wait for the next flight and need to find another way to get to your destination, the airline will generally refund that portion of your ticket, and it may compensate for your additional costs, such as the cost of booking passage on a train or renting a car.

International flights

However, if your flight starts in the European Union or is on an EU carrier, the rules are governed by law called EU-261. This law demands compensation for both bumped and delayed passengers, if they're delayed longer than three hours. The exact compensation varies based on the length of the flight and the duration of the delay. Shorter delays are due up to 250 euros (about $287 at current conversion rates). Longer delays can generate compensation of up to 600 euros ($690).

Notably, EU-261 allows passengers to claim compensation up to three years after the flight. So if you didn't know your rights when you were delayed in the past, you may still have a chance to get payment, Quach added.

Claiming compensation

How do you claim compensation? You have two options — go it alone or hire someone. 

Those who choose the do-it-yourself option should start with the airline's customer service line. The representative should be able to explain what documents are necessary and direct you to the specific area on the airline's website to submit a claim. 

Several services, including ClaimCompass and AirHelp, will file a claim for you. These services typically don't charge anything to initiate a claim. However, if they're able to secure a refund, they'll take a portion of it as their fee. AirHelp, for example, charges 25 percent of the refund amount for standard claims. But if it needs to file an appeal for a denied claim, it could charge up to 50 percent of the refunded amount. 

Why would the service need to file an appeal? A lot of claims are unjustly denied, partly because the airlines don't keep good records of why flights were delayed or canceled, Quach said. AirHelp uses computerized records to track weather patterns and other airline delays from the same airports. If your airline was the only one delayed from a particular region, chances are good that the delay was within the airline's control, and AirHelp would likely appeal a denial.