Points Guy Pointer: Anatomy of an Airline Bump (and Tips for Success)

by on August 23, 2010 · 11 comments

in Points Guy Pointers

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(Note- this post is based on US airlines and regulations. For information on EU regulations, visit the EU site)

For many people, the thought of an oversold flight is stress inducing. However, for many frequent flyers, including myself, it is an opportunity to gain valuable currency (airline dollars) and a host of other fringe benefits like confirmed first class seats and bonus miles. If your schedule is flexible and you know how to play the game, taking bumps can be quite lucrative.

Before you begin bumping, you should understand the concept of a bump. A bump is when a flight has more confirmed passengers than seats. It is not for situations when airlines have to cancel a flight due to weather or mechanical reasons.

Airlines oversell planes in order to ensure planes leave the gate full of passengers. There are a number of reasons why airlines oversell:  1) People miss flights 2) People, especially business travelers,  change flights at the last minute  3) Passengers will mis-connect due to weather or air traffic control issues 4) To make more money- last minutes seats may sell for thousands of dollars. Its worth it for an airline to accept that money and then “bump” someone for much less.

When a flight is oversold, the airline has a legal obligation to ask for volunteers to take other flights to their destination. In return for the passenger’s flexibility, they are usually awarded with a voucher that can be used on future flight purchases (or lounge membership). For domestic flights this is usually $200-$400 and sometimes up to $800 or more for international flights. The amount can be negotiated and is an agreement between the passenger and airline. The compensation will depend on how many volunteers they need and how quickly they can get you to your final destination.

It is very important to note that there are two types of bumps and each have different compensation guidelines:

Someone who volunteers for a bump is entitled to Voluntary Denied Boarding compensation, which is made in agreement with the airline as I mentioned above. Each airline has a different way of handling VDBs so below, I’ll give tips to maximize the value of your bump when negotiating with the airline.

Someone who is bumped from a flight against their will is entitled to Involuntary Denied Boarding compensation, which is mandated by law (for US carriers).  According to Department of Transportation code found here:
1) If a flight is oversold, airlines must solicit volunteers
2) If they can’t get enough volunteers, they must provide IDB compensation rules in writing to those they are “bumping”.
3) If they can get you to your final destination within one hour of your originally scheduled arrival time, you are not due compensation
4) If they can get you to your final destination within two hours (four hours internationally) of your originally scheduled arrival time, you are  entitled to an amount equal to your one-way fare to your final destination that day, with a $400 maximum.
5) If they get you to your final destination two or more (4+ hours internationally), or if the airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles (200% of your one-way fare, $800 maximum).
6) You are entitled to payment in cash. The airline may offer you gift certificate on the airline, but by law, they must provide cash/check payment.

It is also important to note there are some exceptions to the rule:

a) If the airline must substitute a smaller plane for the one it originally planned to use, the carrier isn’t required to pay people who are bumped as a result.
b) On flights using aircraft with 30 through 60 passenger seats, compensation is not required if you were bumped due to safety-related aircraft weight or balance constraints. For this reason, I always check in at the 24 hour mark for travel on regional jets, since they don’t have to give you compensation for bumping.

My tips to help increase your chance of a successful and lucrative bump:

1) Know the rules. Inform yourself of standard pratice for your airline. You can do great research at which has a forum for each airline. Just do a search “VDB compensation” and many threads will come up. This will give you a good baseline to understand whether the offer you are receiving is in line with what others have gotten on similar flights. You always need to be realistic when negotating bumps.
2) Check your flight load before you head to the airport, to get an idea if your flight will be ripe for bumps. There are a number of ways to do this and none are really an exact science, because you will never know how many misconnects there will be until its flight time. However, you can get an idea by using these methods:
a. Try to make a dummy booking for your flight. If its not possible, or only first class seats show avaialble for sale, your flight may be oversold in coach.
b. Use (free service)  to see how many seats are left.
c. Use (paid service) to see how many seats in a fare class are available for sale. Generall Y class= the most expensive coach fare, so if Y=0, the flight is probably oversold.
d. Call the airline and ask if your flight is oversold. They have an obligation to alert passengers, so you’d be surprised at the information you can get.
3) Check in at the kiosk. Many airlines (like Delta and Continental) will actually alert you at the kiosk that your flight may be oversold. In this case, don’t dilly dally- head straight to the gate! This is generally when my adrenaline starts flowing and I get into game-time mode.
4)  Calmly approach the gate agent and ask them if they are taking volunteers. They will know what you mean and will probably click a couple buttons to check the real-time flight load. At this point they may already have a list going, but the goal is to be #1 on their list. You want to get to them, before they announce that they are looking for volunteers. If they are- they will probably tear off your boarding pass and hold onto it.
5) Ask them what they are offering for compensation. If the compensation is really low, let them know you aren’t interested. Bumps are time consuming and if they aren’t going to make it worth your time, walk away. On the flip side, if you really want the bump, this is where you need to be adept at understanding whether they really need you or not. Understand that a gate agent’s main job is to get the flight out on time.  Either way, make sure they know what your minimum requirements are (for me, its usually confirmed first class on next flight and $200 voucher if the next flight gets me to arrive within 2 hours. It starts increasing when they amount of delay increases.) They can also throw in deal sweeteners like confirmed first class, meal vouchers and hotel. They won’t offer more unless you ask for it- and if they need you, they’ll make it happen.
6) Be prepared with potential re-routing options. If you are savvy and can give the gate agent an alternative routing (that may get you in at the same time or earlier), you can come out ahead. For example, if you are flying JFK-LAX and the next flight isn’t until 4 hours later, but you can do an immediate departing JFK-SLC-LAX- give the gate agent the flight numbers and they may be able to confirm you and still give you compensation for your troubles .This is a win-win on both sides.
7) Hang out within earshot of the gate so you can be summoned if needed. They may start boarding before they confirm your bump, so be ready to board at a minutes notice if they don’t actually need you to bump.
8) Once it’s confirmed you are bumped, make sure you paperwork as a receipt of your bump. Don’t assume it will be mailed to you- if you walk away from the counter with no voucher, good luck getting one.
9) Be nice. If you stay by the gate and watch how rudely people treat gate agents, you see why so many of them are cranky. I recently watched pandemonium ensue at a JFK gate and people were regularly dropping the F bomb and berating the gate agents. After all was said and done, I ended up getting an extra $200 in vouchers for being patient and nice – something gate agents rarely see these days.
10) Don’t stop at one bump! There have been many stories about people getting thousands of dollars in a day for continuously bumping. If the airline needs your seat on your new flight, don’t hesitate to volunteer again. In fact, gate agents like dealing with people who know the rules. Once you establish good rapport with an agent, leverage that relationship for your benefit.

1) Always hold onto your original boarding pass, just in case the gate agent screws something up (if they don’t put you on the flight you can then claim Involuntary Denied Boarding compensation)
2) Make sure they know you are not willing to give up your seat assignment if they aren’t going to bump you. For me, losing an exit row would be a nightmare. I never let them give away my seat until they know 100% they will be bumping me from the flight
3) If they can’t confirm you in first class for the next flight, make sure you get a prime seat - like bulkheads which are usually saved for gate assignment. Getting bumped to a middle seat in coach is a deal breaker for me.
4) If you are IDB’d and the gate agent is pushy about giving you airline certificates instead of cash, negotiate for more compensation. I mean, who would want a gift certificate instead of cold, hard cash that can be used to buy airline seats or ANYTHING else? If they resist, insist you are owed cash due to federal regulations on Involuntary Denied Boarding compensation. The more educated you sound (without being a jackass), the better you will fare.

Have any bumping tips from your travels? Please comment below.

Safe (and hopefully lucrative) travels!

If they can get you to your final destination within one hour of your originally scheduled arrival time, you are not due compensation

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • AK

    I was wondering about this process on my last round of trips and this is a great post. Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  • Gary

    Your comment about being “nice” to the gate agent is good advice. I have often got better a better deal by treating the agent with respect. This also works well with Rental Car agents. I have often received upgrades by just being nice & polite. It helps if you are behind someone who is being difficult. The stressed agent is so glad to deal with someone nice, they will give you anything you ask for.

  • Dan Becker

    Thanks for the great article! Interesting question: I was involuntarily bumped to the next flight by UA with no compensation offered at all. Their reasoning: the CLASS was oversold, but not the FLIGHT (they still had seats in economy, just not in first, and I had a first class ticket). Therefore, it’s not an IDB according to UA and I don’t get anything…

    I’m not a lawyer, but it’s hard for me to imagine that a passenger is not entitled to compensation because he could have gone in a lower service class. Do you happen to know what the “rules” say about overselling a class?

  • The Points Guy

    Thats ABSOLUTELY an IDB. You are owed compensation- plain and simple. I’d escalate with a customer service rep and let them know that if they don’t provide you IDB compensation, you will file a complaint with the FAA (they get fined for that). I’m confident you will get the compensation owed. If not, let me know- I’d love to write about your situation, so others don’t get hosed!

  • Dan Becker

    Thanks for your reply! Meanwhile I’ve read §250 and sent them a simple customer service email stating that I want my 800$ compensation since I was IDB’ed from my IAD-SFO flight and thus got to SFO over 2 hours later. They’ll need some time for that…

    I think the gate agents got confused by my ticket, a Star Alliance round-the-world fare (CRWSTAR3) issued by LH, because the fare code starts with C, not F. However, the fare conditions clearly state that for flights within the USA that offer no C cabin, it regularly books in F. So it did, and UA confirmed it. Thus it is a regular first class ticket on that segment and the normal rules should apply.

    I’ll update you when UA replies.

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  • Jim

    Thank you for the excellent article. Many invaluable tips here, especially about being nice to the gate agent and how their incentive is to get the flight out on time so if they need your seat badly enough, they are empowered to make it worth it to you. Just being first on the list and being nice has scored me many free tickets and perks on Delta over the years — my favorite was when two of us were flying on award tickets from Boston to Mexico City with an unwanted 6+ hour layover in Atlanta. Although I called Delta every week for the several months that elapsed between booking it and our travel date, the long layover was all that was available on award travel (holiday season) — right up until when we checked in at Logan. When we got to the gate at Boston and saw the long line at the desk, I sensed something was up; there had been an equipment change (to something smaller — I don’t remember what) and they were asking everyone to line up to get a new boarding pass and seat assignment. When it was our turn, I asked the agent casually and pleasantly if they might need volunteers. She looked at me with appreciative eyes, nodded, and put our two boarding passes aside, and next thing we knew, without any announcement being made, were were each given $400 vouchers for going to Atlanta on the following flight, in first class, with a four-hour layover in Atlanta instead of a six-hour one, and still connecting to Mexico City on the original flight. If Delta had given us the seats on the later flight as we had been hoping, they would have saved $800 that day.

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  • WW

    I recently traveled with a retired United employee, well I paid full fare for my ticket. The other 3 were on a stand by list. I stopped to get a coffee and the next thing I knew he was asking me to sign something regarding my ticket. I didn’t question it at the time. Then when I arrived at the gate to board I then found out I was a volunteer. He had me sign something(voucher or looked like a ticket) and put down my address. I went straight to the agent at the gate and asked what did I just do? You volunteered your seat with compensation. I was floored, he did this behind my back. Their was 2, including me as volunteers. He said hang on to your boarding pass. I did. I stood right in front of all them, hoping to get on the flight I paid for. I booked 2 months prior, I wasn’t going to wait with them. Well, I did get on my flight I paid for. What I’m asking is, did I just unknowingly give him a bonus? Compensation or reward miles or did it become void when I actually boarded my original flight? I wasn’t sure how to ask him, and it has been bugging me for days now. And by the way, they never got on the flight with me. It took them all day to arrive at our destination. I still wonder if I missed out on something an retired employee knew how to get. or not.

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