Erin Pearce arrived at the airport dreaming of the Caribbean cruise that was just hours away. But she suddenly found her ticket didn't necessarily mean she'd get to vacation: There was no seat for her on the plane.
It's happening more often. Passengers are bumped from flights as airlines overbook. And when it happens, some are finding they're having a harder time getting rebooked -- there are fewer available seats because many airlines cutting back on flights.
For Pearce, being bumped was the start of a two-day odyssey that took her through four states as she frantically tried to rescue her spring break from disaster. She planned to fly from Dallas to Houston and then onto Miami the day before her cruise ship departed.
But her Southwest Airlines flight from Houston to Miami was overbooked, and Pearce said she was told there were no seats available for two more days.
"People were upset. Everybody's plans were destroyed," Pearce said.
She rented a car and started driving east, finally ending up in Tallahassee, Fla., where she found a seat on another flight from to Miami. She made it to the dock 15 minutes before her cruise sailed.
"You know, I really don't think they should overbook," she said. "They're selling a service they don't have."
Southwest Airlines said Pearce's case involved an unusual set of circumstances and has told her they will compensate her for her extra travel expenses.
"We do the best job we can to predict how many customers will utilize their confirmed reservations and aim to get it right 100 percent of the time. When that doesn’t happen, we do our best to make the situation right," the airline said of its overbooking policy.
Involuntary bumping of passengers does not happen very often. Only about 1 in 10,000 passengers is denied boarding against his or her will, according to U.S. Department of Transportation figures.
But the rate of involuntary "bumps" has risen in recent years. At Southwest, 10,600 passengers were bumped in 2008, according to DOT statistics. In 2009, that number climbed to 13,113.
"You can't be bumped unless the airlines overbook, and over the past couple of years, they have started the practice of overbooking a little more than they have in the past," said Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com.
Seaney suggests travelers reduce the chance of being bumped by checking in online 24 hours before their flight so they can arrive at the airport with a boarding pass and seat assignment in hand.
He also advises people to know their rights. Under federal rules, airlines must compensate passengers up to $800 and provide a written explanation if they are unable to rebook a bumped passenger within two hours of his or her original flight.
Most airlines overbook some flights, but one U.S. carrier, JetBlue, has taken a stand on the issue, vowing never to oversell a flight.
Earlier this week, the Department of Transportation fined Southwest for failing to compensate some passengers bumped from flights. The airline said the violations involved a small number of flights, and said it is working with the government to ensure full compliance.