The advantages of being bumped


Flying: Valuable rewards often await those who voluntarily give up their seats. Here's an insider's guide.

June 18, 2000|By Tom Parsons | Tom Parsons,Dallas Morning News

Within the past three years, I have been bumped off my scheduled flight more than 25 times. More than 1 million passengers were bumped (voluntarily and involuntarily) from the top 10 U.S. airlines in 1999. That's about 1 in every 488 passengers. Those odds can pay off big for travelers.

Each time I volunteered to give up my seat on oversold flights, I received compensation and was protected with a guaranteed flight on the same carrier or sometimes even on a competing carrier.

The compensation has varied from airline to airline, but has included first-class tickets, coach tickets and up to $700 in airline vouchers for future flights. On some days, I was able to get bumped twice on back-to-back flights and earn even more compensation.

There's an art to getting bumped.

I'm a career "bumpee," and here are my steps to earning valuable rewards for volunteering to give up your seat on oversold flights.

* First, call your travel agent within 24 hours of departure. Agents can review the seat charts and allocation of remaining seats. If there are no seats left to be assigned or the seats are under "airport control," you have a clear indication that the flight is overbooked. But on the day of travel, don't overlook the possibility of another flight having been canceled and putting your flight in an oversold status.

* Arrive at the airport about 90 minutes before departure time. Get to the gate before it opens for your flight and be sure you're the first in line. There have been many flights where only one or two volunteers were needed.

* Ask if the flight is overbooked and if gate agents are seeking volunteers. If they are, ask what compensation you would receive if you give up your seat. If you like what's being offered, volunteer to be the first on the list.

Take a close look at the terms of the compensation. For example, an offer of $50 in vouchers is generally not worth the trouble, but $250 or more in vouchers or free first-class upgrades definitely are.

* Be a savvy negotiator, but don't assume the ante will be upped if you play a waiting game. Another volunteer is usually happy to take your spot. If you hold off, you probably will be out of luck.

* Ask the agent what flight you will be protected on. If they can't guarantee you a seat on their next flight, ask them to protect you under Rule 240 (a term airline employees understand) with a guaranteed seat on another carrier's flight.

* Carry a flight schedule so you can tell the gate agent which new flight you want (once I was bumped from a connecting flight, pocketed a free round-trip certificate, was confirmed on a nonstop flight and arrived 16 minutes earlier than originally scheduled).

* If you are bumped and have more than a two-hour wait, ask for all of the extras: a free long-distance call (or five-minute calling card), a meal ticket, free admission to the airport club with a free drink, and headset coupons to use during your flight. It's important to be courteous and imperative to be presentable. A gruff manner and torn jeans might not do the trick.

* If you have been rebooked with the guarantee of a seat, and your next flight appears to be overbooked, go back to the first step and observe the same strategies for your new flight. You could end up with another free ticket or airline voucher.

* Lastly, keep in mind that most airlines require that you check in at the gate at least 10 minutes before your domestic flight. If you don't meet this requirement, the airline is not obligated to give you a dime in compensation.

Most airlines require a 30-minute check-in minimum for passengers with advance seat assignments. You can still slide in (in terms of bumping compensation) under the 10-minute rule, but you could lose your seat assignment. Airlines can change these policies with little notice; always confirm the current policy for your flight.

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