Way back in 2006 I wrote a post about how more and more passengers were getting bumped from flights. As I write this United is getting a torrent of bad press (again) for problems of their own making (again) and Delta is thrilled to be off the front page of the travel news for a while. Soon American Airlines will surely do something equally stupid and have their own PR debacle.
This current story involved a man being physically dragged off a plane by his arms because he didn’t want to give up his seat. Since everyone has a video camera in their hand now with their phone, passengers recorded it all and a sh&%storm ensued across the entire world.
What airline employees should have done, of course, is offer passengers more and more money in compensation to get off the plane until they had the four volunteers they needed. United supposedly stopped at $800 (according to passengers, $1,000 according to United’s president,who didn’t apologize.) This saved them a few hundred dollars and kept their short-term costs down, but in the end it will now cost them 800 million in damages probably—especially if the Chinese boycott them. The doctor who was dragged off was clearly Asian and told another passenger he was targeted because he was Chinese. People in China were viewing the viral videos at a rate of 10 to 20 million per hour yesterday.
In reality though, packed planes are here to stay–at least until another global recession hits. Only 1 to 10 passengers per 10,000 usually get involuntarily bumped by the various carriers over a sustained period and the airlines like those odds. Plus we only have four major airlines in the USA counting Southwest, and the big three legacy ones are in a race to the bottom. Mergers have left us with little choice until we’re departing from an international gateway and can use a better foreign carrier.
The silver lining of this is, airlines are probably going to be extra generous with overbooking compensation for a while to over-compensate for the debacle. If you don’t have to be somewhere right away, you can really score by getting bumped. Here’s how:
Strategies for Profiting by Voluntarily Getting Bumped
1) Unless you want to spend the night somewhere on purpose, book the first or second flight of the day. That way if you give up your seat you’ll be likely to get onto another one leaving the same day.
2) Don’t take the first offer on compensation. Unless the bidding is already up to a high level, don’t automatically accept an offer for $200 or $300 like they might start off with. Unless they only need one volunteer, you can probably get more.
3) Ask for an upgrade on your new flight. If you can’t get into business class, at least get premium economy or an exit row seat with more legroom.
4) Ask for a meal voucher or two so you can get something to eat while waiting.
5) If you do have to spend the night, it’s the airline’s responsibility to cover your lodging. It’ll usually be at a chain hotel near the airport.
6) Be sure you have something in writing spelling out your compensation and make sure you’re clear on the fine print. Vouchers often expire in 12 months so make sure you know how to redeem them and what exact brands you can fly with.
Know Your Rights if You Get Forcibly Bumped
The people chosen first to be involuntarily removed are usually the ones who 1) have the cheapest seats, 2) have no loyalty status, and 3) checked in the latest. Even if you meet the first two requirements, the last one is up to you. This is another reminder to arrive early at the airport and don’t be at the back of the line. If you’re not checking luggage, check in online the day before so you’ll have your boarding pass early.
Know the rules of what’s mandatory. If you are only going to arrive an hour later, they can bump you and owe you nothing. If the new flight gets you to where you’re going between one and two hours later, the airline owes you 200% of your one-way fare up to a maximum of $675. Usually you’ll get delayed more than that and the amount really goes up. More than two hours domestic or more than four hours international and you’re owed 400% of the one-way fare, up to a max of $1,350. In Europe the compensation is even more generous.
If you don’t think you’ll be able to fly that airline again within a year, you can request cash compensation.
Keep the Flyer Rights site bookmarked on your phone or download an app called Passenger Rights at the first whiff of trouble. Then you can go into any negotiation well-informed about your rights and what you’re owed. Be firm, but be polite and calm. Getting nasty with the one (underpaid) person who can better your situation is not a good strategy.
Then if you do get dragged off the plane by security, make sure somebody is filming it…