More fliers volunteering to be bumped They love the incentives and spare others from involuntarily being left

Free ticket to L.A., anyone?

Carriers' overbooking creates opportunities for prudent travelers

August 25, 1996|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

Bumped. It's a dreaded word for most airline passengers. But, for savvy travelers with a little extra time on their hands, getting bumped can be a bonanza.

With record numbers of people flying on fewer planes, ticketed passengers are more likely to get bumped since airlines routinely overbook. Before they involuntarily bump passengers, airlines must seek volunteers, however.

To entice passengers to trade their seat on a plane for one in the airport waiting lounge, carriers offer sometimes irresistible incentives: free tickets, frequent flier points, even cash. As a result, more and more travelers are rushing to the gate to become volunteer "bumpees."

"It's a scheme that's growing among passengers, but it's working out for everyone," said David Stempler, president of AirTrav Advisors, a Washington-based air travel consultant firm. "In the old days, the last person who got to the gate was denied boarding."

Overbooking and bumping are not illegal. Airlines know that a certain percentage of ticketed passengers -- particularly those with fully refundable tickets -- won't show up. To make sure that their planes are as full as possible, all airlines overbook flights.

Because carriers have improved their calculations about no-shows and boosted their volunteer rate, there's actually less risk today that passengers will be bumped involuntary. Since 1990, the number of passengers involuntarily bumped by major U.S. airlines has dropped to 48,665 from 57,441, while the number of volunteers jumped by nearly a quarter of a million -- to 793,747 from 547,540.

"People understand this is a good deal," said David Castelveter, a spokesman for USAir Group Inc., the parent company of USAir, the largest carrier at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. "The flight can be virtually empty and somebody will walk up and say, 'Are you taking volunteers?' " Volunteering is definitely not for everyone, particularly those on a tight schedule who need to make appointments or important flight connections. But often, passengers have the luxury of getting bumped.

"Only one out of five times does a couple hours make a difference to me," said Gregg Somerville, a Wilmington, Del., stockbroker who has picked up seven or eight free, round-trip tickets during the past five years.

"If it looks crowded, I'll always volunteer," he said. "There's usually no shortage of volunteers."

Occasionally, volunteering can pay off exceptionally well. When Ann Benya, a Los Angeles data-processing consultant, was scheduled to fly to Baltimore last year, she received a free round trip ticket from United Airlines after giving up her seat.

"I went to the next available flight, but it was overbooked, too," said Benya, who volunteered a second time to be bumped. "I walked away with money and tickets coming out of every pocket."

While overbooking isn't illegal, federal regulations outline penalties that airlines must pay involuntarily bumped passengers.

The rules do not apply to those traveling on commuter flights with 60 or fewer passengers, though USAir and others have chosen to use the same compensation policy for both.

Involuntarily bumped travelers are entitled to an on-the-spot cash payment of up to $400 -- depending on the ticket value and the length of delay -- plus hotel, phone calls and meals.

"Airlines don't like to pay; they'd much rather get a volunteer," said Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation. And the practice of luring volunteers with free tickets has grown substantially in recent years with airlines strapped for cash.

Low-fare carriers tend to bump passengers most often. Southwest Airlines -- which prints "We Overbook" on its ticket jacket -- has the highest involuntary bumping rate in the airline industry, 3.43 per 10,000 passengers last year. Northwest had ,, the lowest rate at 0.34 per 10,000.

While the Department of Transportation regulates what airlines must pay involuntarily bumped passengers, it doesn't provide guidelines about voluntary bumping. Typically, airlines take volunteers on a first-come-first-served basis.

"I get there early, make sure I hang out right at the gate and I say, 'If this plane is overbooked, are you looking for volunteers?' " said Tom Parsons, publisher of Best Fares Discount Travel magazine in Dallas, who was bumped 11 times last year.

"It's a science; it's an art," he said. "It's worth thousands of dollars to me, and the only inconvenience is figuring out what to do for two hours."

Incentives vary from airline to airline, Parsons said. Most give free round-trip tickets on domestic flights and cash for international flights.

Occasionally, the need for volunteers can spark a bidding war. Parsons recalled a recent flight for which the airline couldn't get enough volunteers by offering one free ticket.

"So they upped the ante to two free tickets and it was like a stampede time to get off the plane," he said.

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