You’ve booked your flight, paid for your ticket, received a confirmation. And then you arrive at the airport and you’re told there’s no seat, despite your credit card already being charged.

Last month, with “Travelers’ rights: When reservations aren’t honored,” I recounted how I recently booked a rental car and subsequently found I wasn’t notified when there were no vehicles left in the fleet. That column addressed bogus bookings not only with rentals, but also with hotels, trains and buses.

But the airlines have turned “false” reservations into a topic so hot it’s dominated headlines this year. Ever since the mistreatment of Dr. David Dao on United Express Flight 3411 in April went viral, the closely intertwined but separate topics of overbooking and bumping have generated both attention and concern.

As we move into the busy holiday season, experts indicate America’s skies will be more crowded than they’ve been in years— and therefore the chances of being bumped are higher as well. Some of us would like to see involuntary denied boardings a thing of the past. But even if that doesn’t happen soon, there are still steps you can take to avoid Dr. Dao’s fate.

Seeking solutions

The airlines say bumping is a rare occurrence, which speaks to the tone deafness of how they regard customers. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there were 41,126 passengers bumped against their will by domestic carriers in 2016, so it wasn’t so rare they couldn’t fill a football stadium.

I’ll be the first to acknowledge there was once a time—back in the Mad Men era—when reservations policies placed airlines at a disadvantage. But that time is more dated than Don Draper’s fedora.

At the dawn of the jet age in the late 1950s, passengers were free to make multiple bookings without penalty, and many of them, particularly business travelers, did just that. The industry sometimes reserved seats on five separate flights for the same passenger, and was left with “no-shows” that cost carriers money. But in recent years such problems have evaporated, thanks to a confluence of events:
• no-show passengers are heavily penalized today, through both high fees and forfeiture of their seats, which in turn generates even more revenue for airlines AND allows them to sell the…