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Airlines do lots of things to make flying complicated for passengers in the name of maximizing revenue. And on some flights, they go as far as selling more seats than exist on the plane, resulting in an oversale that can leave ticket holders stranded.
For proactive fliers who are flexible, volunteering to bump can combine saving another flier misery with an opportunity to net hundreds of dollars in flight vouchers or gift cards for a few hours of extra time at the airport.
Not all airlines treat oversold flights equally, and some are significantly more likely to take up volunteers than others.
We analyzed the data released this month by the Department of Transportation covering the full year 2016 to rank major airlines based on how often they pay volunteers to bump off an oversold flight.
On average across all airlines that report to the Department of Transportation, 6.6 out of every 10,000 passengers in 2016 became volunteers who earned compensation for taking another flight, or not flying altogether.
Delta is the big airline most likely to pay volunteers. With 10 out of every 10,000 passengers getting compensation for volunteering, you’re over twice as likely to successfully volunteer on a Delta flight than on American Airlines, where the rate is just 4.1 for every 10,000 passengers. Delta has one of the more active volunteer recruitment programs, which sometimes includes offering gift cards for things besides flights, and soliciting reverse auction bids during check-in.
JetBlue and Hawaiian are the least likely to pay. Hawaiian and JetBlue don’t make a practice of overbooking flights, though in rare cases, weather, weight issues, or other unforseen events can lead to oversales and bumps. Similarly, very few Hawaiian or JetBlue passengers face involuntary bumps off flights they want to take.
Regional flights are were the action is. Feeder airlines to bigger carriers like ExpressJet and SkyWest that operate regional flights have the highest bump rates overall, with 14.7 out of every 10,000 passengers earning volunteer bump compensation. You can’t buy a ticket directly from these airlines. Instead, they are sold as part of tickets on major airlines like American, Delta, or United.
Volunteering is tougher than it used to be
In 2016, 6.6 out of every 10,000 passengers was able to volunteer for compensation (or 1 in every 1,518 passengers). That’s down 42% from 11.4 out of every 10,000 passengers in 2010 (or 1 in every 874 passengers), despite more fully booked flights in 2016.
Volunteer bump rates
2016 vs 2010 – volunteers given compensation per 10,000 passengers
(2010 statistics combined for merged carriers like American / US Airways and Southwest / AirTran)
Volunteering isn’t harder across the board, though.
Delta offered volunteer compensation to 11.1 out of 10,000 passengers in 2010, very close to its rate of 10.0 out of 10,000 in 2016.
American’s volunteer compensation rate declined substantially, offering volunteer compensation to 10.0 out of every 10,000 passengers in 2010, but only 4.1 out of every 10,000 in 2016.
In 2011 the government imposed stiffer compensation requirements for passengers who are involuntarily bumped off flights and denied boarding, which may deter airlines from overbooking some flights.
Airlines have become more sophisticated at booking flights to exactly the number of passengers who ultimately show up, reducing the need for volunteers, and fewer flights are on small regional planes that are more prone to being oversold.
The upshot is involuntary denied boarding rates are improving, leaving fewer passengers stranded without consent.
Involuntary bump rates
2016 vs 2010 – confirmed passengers denied boarding (not volunteer) per 10,000 passengers
(2010 statistics combined for merged carriers like American / US Airways and Southwest / AirTran)
Involuntary bumps, where confirmed passengers who want to travel on the flight aren’t allowed to board, are also about 40% less likely than they were in 2010, with 0.6 out of every 10,000 passengers bumped without being a volunteer.
Delta, Hawaiian, and Virgin America were the least likely to force involuntary bumps on passengers, at just 0.1 out of every 10,000 passengers.
Southwest was the most likely to force an involuntary bump, at 1 out of every 10,000 passengers, a rate that’s almost no improvement from its level in 2010.
If you’re involuntarily bumped, compensation can get big, fast, and it’s mandated by the federal government, up to $1,350 for a one way trip. In the first quarter of 2016, mandatory compensation paid by airlines to people who were involuntarily bumped averaged $907.
Average involuntary bump compensation per passenger bumped, 2016
- Alaska Airlines $1,981
- American Airlines $665
- Delta Air Lines $1,131
- Frontier Airlines $806
- Hawaiian Airlines No involuntary bumps
- JetBlue Airways $1,369
- Southwest Airlines $866
- Spirit Airlines $655
- United Air Lines $573
- Virgin America $950
- Overall $752
Tips to volunteer for compensation
If you have flexible plans, and want to maximize your chances of getting compensation for being a volunteer, consider these tips…
Ask in advance. While airlines don’t take unsolicited volunteers over the phone, they do have to tell you if the flight you’re booked on is oversold when you ask. If it is, and you’re flexible, that’s a sign to get to the airport earlier and prepare to volunteer.
Take the offer at check-in. Airlines often solicit volunteers during check-in, building a volunteer list in advance. It pays to try to check-in both online and at the airport kiosk, to see if an offer pops up. If it does, there’s no downside to saying you’re willing to volunteer. The airline won’t hold you to it unless you agree in person with the gate agent, and you’ll get on the volunteer list early.
Be at the gate an hour before departure. Gate agents start showing up about one hour before departure for most domestic flights, and you want to gently remind the agent you’re ready and willing to volunteer if it’s needed.
Don’t give up your boarding pass until it’s absolutely necessary. Once the agent ‘unloads’ you from the flight and gives someone your seat all bets are off. Some agents do this before they know for sure they’ll need a volunteer’s seat.
If they end up not needing volunteers, you could end up losing your preferred seat assignment, and get stuck with a last resort middle seat. Be clear with the gate agent that you must get your old seat back if volunteers aren’t needed.
Travel without checked luggage. Gate agents prefer volunteers who don’t have checked luggage that might need to be offloaded.
Have alternatives in mind. If you make things easy for the agent by doing your homework with flight options in mind, you might have a better shot at getting rewarded early.
Tips to avoid an involuntary bump
If you’re not flexible with your plans, and you find yourself on a flight with no seat assignment, here are tips to avoid getting bumped, or if you do get bumped, get the compensation you are entitled to.
Don’t stop trying to get a seat assignment. Most airlines first bump passengers who don’t yet have a seat assignment. So it pays to constantly check and re-check online and using the airline’s app to see if a seat opens up. Seats are constantly changing hands, so if you don’t see a seat the first time, keep checking on your phone or using the kiosk at the airport.
If you’re flying Southwest, try to check-in early online so you get a lower boarding number.
Get to the gate on time. If you’re bumped, the airline doesn’t have to give you compensation if you don’t present yourself at the gate in time. That time is often well before the departure time listed on your boarding pass, so a good rule of the thumb for domestic flights is to be at the gate no later than 30 minutes before departure.
Know your rights
If the airline won’t let you on your flight, and you’ve shown up at the gate on time, here’s what compensation you are entitled to by government rules, based on how long your arrival will be delayed.
- You get rebooked to arrive within one hour of your original arrival time. No compensation. If you are bumped involuntarily and the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to get you to your final destination (including later connections) within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time, there is no compensation.
- You’re rebooked to arrive 1 – 2 hours late (1 – 4 hours international). You can request 200% of your one-way fare via check, up to $675. So if your one-way fare is $200, you are entitled to $400 in compensation.
- You’re rebooked to arrive more than 2 hours late (4 hours international). You can request 400% of your one-way fare via check, up to $1,350.
Beware that the airline might try to offer you flight vouchers (for example $300 for a 4 hour delay). If you accept those you lose your right to the cash compensation, so make sure you ask the agent specifically what your one way fare is, and do the math yourself to make sure you’re getting a better deal. You can insist on a check when the airline bumps you without your consent.
The gotchas are…
The airline puts a different / smaller plane on the flight. In that case, no compensation is due if you’re bumped. It’s incredibly frustrating, but that’s the rule.
You’re on a 30 – 60 seat plane and there are weight / balance issues. Again, no compensation if you’re bumped in this case, though airlines will sometimes try to solicit volunteers with vouchers.
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