Tips and tricks for how to handle oversold flights

Jan 4, 2020

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In airlines’ quest to fill up each flight as much as possible, most will sell more tickets on a flight than there are seats on the plane. Whether through missed connections or passengers simply missing their flight, airlines have plenty of history to assume that some of those passengers won’t end up making the flight.

But, sometimes more passengers than can fit on the plane will make it — or the airline needs to swap in a smaller plane — and the airline needs to figure out a solution. No airline wants to go through a Dr. Dao situation, and most want to avoid the bad press that may result from involuntarily denying boarding to a passenger.

So, most airlines have created — and are working on improving — dynamic systems and creative solutions to make the process to volunteer to give up your seat as easy and enticing as possible. While requests for volunteers at the gate still happen, airlines are working to make that a thing of the past by rebooking passengers on alternative flights and requesting volunteers online during check-in, in the airline’s app and at airport kiosks.

As airlines continue to tweak their systems, the exact process is continually changing. But let’s review the different major U.S. airline policies and then go through tips for the next time you find yourself on an oversold flight.

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In This Post

American’s oversold flight policy

AA recently made news when an internal memo leaked about changes to its oversold flight compensation policy. While the airline has historically paid all bump volunteers the same amount when rebooking at the gate, AA gate agents are now instructed to pay no more than the amount the traveler bid or verbally accepted for the bump. This should reduce the airline’s costs for bumping passengers from an oversold flight, but it’s sure to cause awkward situations at the gate.

According to an AA spokesperson, AA’s eventual goal is to offer compensation in the app and rebook customers before they even arrive at the gate. This has the advantage of the airline being able to more seamlessly provide varying compensation amounts to different volunteers. But it also can work out better for passengers, who might be able to catch a new flight around the same time as their original one.

AA offers meal vouchers to volunteers who have a significant wait time between their original and rebooked flight. And if bump requires an overnight — and the passenger isn’t in their city of residence — AA will offer overnight accommodations.

One quirk that elite members should keep in mind: you typically won’t get an operational upgrade if you’re on the volunteer list. That means you might want to hold off on volunteering in the app if you see that economy is sold out but premium economy, business and/or first class have space.

Delta’s oversold flight policy

In its response to TPG, a Delta spokesperson shared that it’s Delta’s goal to be the “No. 1 major carrier in having the fewest involuntary denied boardings.” And, it’s been quite successful with that. It’s lead U.S. airlines in that metric for the past three years — including from April to June 2019 where the airline recorded zero involuntary denied boardings for the first time in its history.

Delta chalks up its success in this area to making their voluntary denied boarding options as attractive as possible. In fact, Delta shared that their surveys reveal “that customers who accept a voluntary option are significantly more likely to recommend Delta as those who have a normal travel experience.”

Related: How Delta handled an oversold flight wonderfully

Where Delta stands out is the compensation options that it provides. Volunteers are given gift cards that can be redeemed at one of 10 retailers: Delta, American Express, Amazon, Best Buy, Bloomingdales, Macy’s, Marriott, Nordstrom’s, Royal Caribbean and Target. The airline clarifies that the gift cards are “fully transferable and combinable.”

A Delta spokesperson confirmed that customers who volunteer or are involuntarily bumped from a flight are accommodated at Delta-contracted hotel — but only if you are away from your home and the airline is unable to accommodate you on an alternative flight on the same travel day.

Related: Delta pays $4,000 to bump a passenger by just 9 hours

The spokesperson also confirmed that passengers “retain their current seat until we determine if we need them.” So, there’s no need to worry about losing your preferred seat and ending up in a worse seat on the same flight.

United’s oversold flight policy

Through its award-winning volunteer solicitation program, United offers either United travel vouchers or United MileagePlus miles as compensation for volunteering to take an alternate flight. The airline notes that it’s tested options such as iPads and gift cards, but “found that most customers preferred the travel vouchers and miles options.”

As with American Airlines’ new policy, you may not get the same compensation as another traveler. A United spokesperson noted that “each customer’s expectations and needs are different,” so United employees are “empowered to work with each customer to find a resolution that makes sense for them when they are volunteering for an alternative flight.” One policy that is clear: If the next flight requires an overnight stay, United will provide a hotel.

However, don’t get your hopes up if you’re prompted by United to volunteer to take a bump. I’ve received this prompt numerous times on United but the situation has been resolved by the time I’ve gotten to the gate each time. That’s surely been the work of United’s oversold flight tool convincing other passengers on my flight to accept a free flight change or alternative routing.

These types of dynamic rebooking options are surely designed to keep the airline from shelling out another $10,000 travel voucher to avoid having to involuntarily deny boarding to a passenger.

My experiences volunteering on oversold flights

The failure: Back in November 2016, I learned the hard way how not to handle overbooked flights. I had some flexibility on which United flight I could take from Houston (IAH) to Newark (EWR) before an overseas flight. When I heard the request for volunteers before boarding, I thought I’d make the gate agent’s day easier by volunteering at the first $200 offer.

After confirming I would have a seat on the next flight and a $200 voucher, I handed over my boarding pass. But the gate agent refused to hand over a boarding pass for the next flight or my $200 voucher. Once the flight was ready to close, the agent printed a boarding pass for me — but it wasn’t for the next flight. She had found a middle seat in the back of this flight and had put me there. My protests about our agreement fell on deaf ears; it was either this flight or no flight.

Not only was my Economy Plus window seat replaced with a standard-legroom middle seat, but I also was forced to check my carry-on bag.

Related: TPG reader mistake story: How I got punished for volunteering my seat

The quick success: My oversell luck turned around in late 2018 for an American Airlines flight from Charlotte (CLT) to Los Angeles (LAX). As I was #1 on the upgrade list, I was standing near the gate podium when the agent announced she needed one volunteer to take a flight two hours later for $600. After confirming that all first-class passengers had boarded — so I wouldn’t get the upgrade — I accepted the bump offer. Even better, my upgrade cleared on the next flight.

The downside is that the payment came in the form of a paper voucher for travel on AA. As my colleague Liz Hund documented, it can be a pain to redeem these vouchers. But, I was happy to deal with the hassle to get $600 in free travel for just a two-hour delay.

The false hope: In June 2019, Katie and I were booked on a flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD) and were prompted at check-in to volunteer to be bumped. The offers weren’t great: $200, $300, $400 or $500 per person. Considering that we were on the last flight on the route that night, we knew that we’d need to overnight in LAX and fly out the next day. But, since we didn’t need to be in Australia for another couple of days, we figured we’d volunteer through the app at $500 each.

In the lounge, the agent mentioned that the flight was overbooked by more than 20 passengers and that our chances of getting bumped were pretty good. At the gate, the agent confirmed we wanted to volunteer and noted that the offer had already increased to $725 per person. Since she needed so many volunteers, the offer steadily climbed to $1,200. Per the AA policy at the time, all volunteers would get the same amount of compensation, and since we’d volunteered early, we were quite optimistic.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. No volunteers ended up being needed for the flight, and some standby passengers even were able to make the flight. Curious about the situation, I reached out to AA about what happened. An airline spokesperson noted that the volunteers were needed due to a possible weight restriction — not because the airline oversold the flight by that many passengers.

Tips for maximizing an oversell situation

With those policies and my experience in mind, here’s what I recommend to travelers when dealing with a potential oversold flight situation.

Know your rights and the airline’s limits

Before getting yourself into a potentially problematic situation, know your rights. In the U.S., you’re entitled to some compensation for volunteering, and the maximum required by law is going to be no more than $1,350 (or 400% of your one-way ticket, whichever is less) for an involuntary denied boarding, so that’s generally going to be an upper limit.

That said, Delta will now offer up to $9,950 for a volunteer to take a later flight as the airline is focusing so much on avoiding involuntary denied boardings, and United has paid a passenger $10,000 for “volunteering” rather than taking the involuntary denied boarding payout.

Related: TPG readers share the best airline compensation they’ve ever received

The laws are different in the European Union. While these laws are more customer-friendly when it comes to delays, the laws make no differentiation between a three-hour delay and being denied boarding. Compensation for either is on a sliding scale from 250 euros to 600 euros ($277-$665) based on the distance of the flight.

Do your research

There’s not much that’s available to tell whether or not a flight is oversold. Looking at a seat map can be an indicator of how full a plane is, but gate-assigned seats can mean that a flight that doesn’t look full at first is actually sold out.

So, TPG recommends using a tool such as ExpertFlyer — which is owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures — to see exactly how many seats are still available for sale. If you see zero availability listed for each cabin (e.g. Y0, W0, J0), that means that there are no more seats for sale on that flight and you have the potential for an overbooked flight.

If that’s the case, don’t close ExpertFlyer quite yet. Instead, check your alternate options so that you’ll know what to ask for if you end up volunteering.

Related: The beginner’s guide to ExpertFlyer

Check the weather

If you’re on the last flight out before a storm or blizzard, you’ll want to reconsider volunteering. While the gate agent might offer to rebook you on a flight leaving later that day, you could end up with a weather delay or cancellation that makes the wait a lot longer.

Related: What to do if your flight is delayed or canceled

Similarly, before you accept an offer that connects through another airport, you’ll want to check the weather there. TPG reader Susie’s story is a pertinent warning: she and her new husband took an offer to take a flight just an hour later, but storms in Chicago delayed that flight by hours. That delay meant that they would miss their connecting flight to Paris.

It’s best if you don’t check a bag

While the airline may be able to retrieve your bag from the hold, airlines may be unwilling to accept volunteers that have checked bags, particularly on international flights where regulations require passengers to travel with their bags. Even if your bag is able to be moved, your checked bag may get lost in the shuffle. If you’re considering checking your bag but might volunteer, you’ll likely want to try to carry it on.

Photo by Spaces Images / Getty Images
(Photo by Spaces Images/Getty Images.)

Check with the gate agent

If you’re hoping to take a bump, you’re going to want to get to the gate well before boarding time. When you arrive at the gate, check with the gate agent to see if there’s an oversell situation. Mention that you might be willing to volunteer if there’s a good offer. Gate agents are busy, so keep the interaction quick and friendly.

This would also be a good time for elite members to inquire if the gate agent might “roll the cabin.” When the economy cabin is oversold but there’s space in a premium cabin, the gate agents are going to first look to upgrade elites — first through upgrade requests and then through operational upgrades — instead of or in addition to offering bump compensation. However, being listed as a bump volunteer may keep you from getting an operational upgrade.

Don’t hand over your boarding pass until the oversell is finalized

Sometimes there are potential oversells that don’t end up happening. By handing over your boarding pass, you’re giving up your claim to that particular seat. The airline might not need volunteers after all, and you’ll likely not get that seat back. As I mentioned above, I learned this lesson the hard way. Don’t give in to pressure to hand over your boarding pass until your compensation is guaranteed.

Don’t get too greedy

Airlines are shifting their policies to try to minimize their cost from oversold flights. Especially on American Airlines, you now need to be careful what you bid. When bidding for an oversold flight, you’re going to want to put an amount that you’d be happy with without getting too greedy. And, if you’re interested in cashing in on an oversell, don’t wait too long to volunteer or you might miss out on the opportunity. Also, remember that U.S. airlines only have to pay a passenger up to $1,350 for an involuntarily denied boarding.

Don’t hesitate to ask for special treatment

If you’re flying on a one-stop itinerary and one of the legs is oversold, an agent might be able to rebook you on a nonstop. If you need a few more miles, you might be able to get yourself rebooked on a longer itinerary. Or, if you’re not ready to head back from a beautiful destination, you might be able to be rebooked a few days later.

While policies may prevent it, it can’t hurt to ask for extras like an upgrade on the next flight, meal vouchers, a mileage bonus or a couple of lounge passes to make the wait easier.

For example, during my American Airlines oversell situation in Los Angeles, a guy on our flight was heading to New Zealand via Sydney. With the next day’s flight to Sydney heading toward an oversold situation, the gate agents were happy to agree to put him on the nonstop flight to Auckland.

Feel free to keep volunteering

Just because you accepted a voluntary bump offer on an earlier flight doesn’t prevent you from taking another bump on a later flight. You might remember in April 2017 when Delta’s system melted down. Forbes contributor Laura Begley Bloom, her husband and daughter were able to score a total of $11,000 in compensation — not including the refund of their original flights — for accepting bump after bump.

TPG caught up with Laura at the time of her infamous non-trip. While it worked out for her family, she did share a warning:

Whenever you volunteer your seat, you give up a lot. The airline has to get you on another confirmed flight to your destination. But they don’t need to give you the same class of service or even a direct flight, for that matter. The airline can also break up groups traveling together.

And that’s an important reminder to conclude with. While volunteering to be bumped from your flight can be very lucrative, it comes with risks that should be factored in.

Featured photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.

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