One of the basic tenets of airline revenue management is that, for any given flight, a certain number of passengers will fail to show up. They may have missed a connection, overslept or simply cancelled a refundable ticket at the last minute. Rather than leave money on the table, however, airlines routinely sell more tickets than there are seats on the plane, in the hopes that they can place the excess passengers in the seats of those who didn’t make it. Sometimes, though, their math is wrong.
There is a significant difference between being denied boarding involuntarily and voluntarily (IDB vs VDB). Before involuntarily denying boarding to a passenger, or “bumping” them, the airline is required to ask for volunteers. The volunteers will generally be offered compensation in exchange for taking a later flight. If the gate agent doesn’t get enough volunteers, it must IDB passengers, give them a written copy of their rights and pay them according to the following schedule (in the US; the European regulations are even stricter)*:
The airline can offer you alternate compensation, but it must disclose to you in writing what you are entitled to. You can, of course, decline the alternative and accept the above.
IDBs are a big deal to airlines. They get reported publicly and an airline can get fined for not following procedures. Corporations can also insert clauses into their contracts with the airlines that penalize the carriers for denying boarding to their employees. Thus, the carriers will go out of their way to solicit volunteers, even if it ends up costing them more than they would have been forced to pay out in cash to IDB victims. Generally, the offer is for a travel credit, although Delta may also offer you gift cards for various merchants (including American Express). The VDB is your friend.
Here’s where you come in: Volunteering your seat if you have flexibility is a great way to pay for future tickets. In 2015, my family and I received over $4,000 from Delta in credit and gift cards from volunteering seats on various flights. Gate agents start by offering a low amount and then keep raising it until they get the necessary number of volunteers (or decide that they’re going to IDB a passenger). Usually, the agent will give all volunteers the highest amount offered (i.e., if you volunteer at $600 and they raise it to $800 to get more people, the will likely give you the $800 anyway), but you should ask when you offer up your seat.
There’s one rule when it comes to volunteering your seat: They won’t give you anything that you didn’t ask for. The last flight I gave up my seat on was JFK to Las Vegas. Everyone who asked for a first class seat on the new flight got one. Everyone who didn’t ask sat in coach. While the airline will generally throw in a hotel room if you require an overnight, you should pump them for more. Got kids? Ask for two connecting rooms instead of the one they’re offering you. Hungry? Hit them up for food vouchers. Don’t feel like sitting at the gate? Ask for lounge access. You get the picture. Remember, you are making their lives easier. The worst they can say is no. And if you don’t like the offer, you simply won’t accept it. No harm done.
Many veterans schedule their flights hoping to be asked to volunteer their seat, since the compensation is so good. Getting bumped is a game and, like any game, there are strategies to win.
First, have an idea of how much your flight is in-demand. Tuesday flight at noon? Not so much. Weekend after Thanksgiving? Now we’re talking.
Fly with carry-ons. If you have checked luggage, you may lose your opportunity to give up your seat, as the airline doesn’t want to take the time to pull it out. Time is money in the airline business, even a few minutes.
Ask early and ask often. You may be asked as early as check-in if you would be willing to volunteer your seat at the airport (They won’t actually take your seat then, they’re just soliciting indications of interest.). In addition, ask when you get to the airport. Note that if you are connecting, you can ask about the connecting flight, even though your home airport will generally not be able to remove you from the flight and/or give you compensation. At the gate, they’ll make an announcement that the flight is oversold and that they need volunteers. As soon as you hear them mention that the flight is oversold, move to the podium immediately. Most people will wait until the entire announcement is complete. Again, if you don’t like it, don’t accept it.
Don’t surrender your seat assignment until you are sure that they will need you. I once volunteered my seat and they moved another passenger into it. When it was time to board, the flight had more no-shows than the gate agents had anticipated, so they did not need me as a volunteer. By that time, though, the only seats to put me back into was a middle toward the back of the plane. So when you volunteer, ask the agent to hold your seat assignment until they are positive that you won’t be on the flight.
The Bottom Line
There are so many occasions when passengers feel that the airline is taking advantage of them. It’s nice when the tray tables are turned.
*There are occasions when the airline is not required to compensate you even if it bumps you, such as on planes with 60 or fewer seats that has weight/balance issues, an aircraft substitution or if it gets you on a flight scheduled to arrive at your destination within an hour of your original arrival time.
Cover photo credit to Alan Turkus