You almost certainly remember Dr. David Dao, the poor soul who was notoriously dragged — bloody, concussed, with a broken nose and two missing front teeth — off of a United Airlines flight because no one volunteered to be bumped.
All the airlines sure as hell remember him! As a result, this might be the golden age of volunteering to be bumped when your flight’s too full (Stalinism, after all, isn’t a good look for any customer-oriented business — especially when United’s CEO referred to the incident as merely “having to re-accommodate these customers.”). But what do airlines usually offer? What do you need to know before taking their offer? When are good times — and bad times — for you to do it? And which flights are most likely to want to bump passengers, anyway? Alongside Seth Kaplan, an airline industry expert and transportation analyst for NPR’s Here & Now, we’re volunteering to get to the bottom of this (before we get forcibly ejected).
Why do airlines have to bump their own paying passengers in the first place?
According to Kaplan, airlines all have what’s called a revenue management process: It’s where they say how many tickets they expect to sell for a given flight, how much they’re going to charge for the different tickets, etc. — it’s a forecast. And they know, on every given flight, things like how many people are going to walk up at the last minute willing to pay a lot, and how many people typically don’t show up for this flight.
“Because they like to take off with a full flight if they can, they will oversell the flight,” Kaplan says. “But these days, they don’t want to drag anybody off an airplane. So let’s say they expect five people to not show up for a certain flight just based on history. Maybe they’ll oversell that flight by four, and usually they’ll be right: That flight will take off either exactly full or with an empty seat or two. But sometimes, everybody — or nearly everybody — shows up.” That’s when they start asking for volunteers, offering what’s called “denied boarding compensation.”
In Dao’s case, United had to take on four additional staff to cover an unstaffed flight at another location, and so, the airline had to make room to accommodate them. You can (hopefully) bet it would never go down like that again. In further good news, it’s highly unlikely to happen to you anyway. “Statistically, you’ll just about get struck by lightning before you get involuntarily deboarded,” says Kaplan.
Are there no rules against them habitually doing this to customers?
Nope: It’s part of the law. Technically, what you’re paying for is the airline to take you to your destination — it’s up to them to decide whether it’s on the flight you signed up for, or another one. Because fuck you and your plans, buddy!
Jesus Christ. Who decides to just not show up for a flight, anyway?
A lot of no-shows are business travelers, Kaplan says, who tend to change their plans frequently. Say their meeting runs late, they’re going to miss their flight. Conversely, maybe their meeting ends early, in which case they might try to get on an earlier flight. Others might miss it for personal reasons.
So what’s at stake? What do the airlines offer?
Airlines are all a bit different, but in the case of Delta and United, they’ll each offer up to $10,000 in compensation (in addition to getting you on the next available flight to your destination, of course). It rarely comes to that, however — usually they’ll find enough volunteers who are willing to take much less, maybe a $250 or $300 voucher in denied boarding compensation.
And what’s the voucher good for? Just credit?
Back in the old days, airlines would offer, say, one free domestic round trip. But these days it’s usually straight credit.
Are there any strings attached?
Not really — there aren’t blackout dates or anything like that. Kaplan, however, stresses that there’s an expiration date (often one year), and the airlines are often completely inflexible about it, so mark it on your calendar, because your voucher will be worthless after that date. Also: Know whether you have to spend the whole value at once or not. Most airlines don’t require you to these days, he says.
Can you get anything else?
Oh yeah. If the next flight they offer to put you on isn’t until the following day, ask for a hotel room — they’ll usually throw that in. Since you’ll be at the airport longer, they might give you food credit for a meal, but you’ll have to ask. Also ask about access to the airline’s lounge if you want. “It’s like any other negotiation: What’s your leverage? If they really need you, that’s when you can start asking for those kinds of things,” says Kaplan.
What kind of flights usually have to bump passengers?
Like Kaplan said earlier, it’s most common for business routes (say, between New York and Chicago). Pleasure destinations, like Orlando, Las Vegas, Fort Lauderdale, less so. Vacationers change their plans less often, and so, airlines don’t oversell those flights as much. But it can still happen.
When should I volunteer?
Basically, ask yourself: How important is it to get to your destination by a certain time? Because remember, anything can still happen to that next flight that they’ll put you on: Delay, cancellation, who knows? And here you are, already at the gate, and — don’t forget — your plane is already there, too. “You’d hate to be a groomsman and have to tell the story about missing the wedding for a $250 voucher,” says Kaplan. “Just be sure you’re okay with what you’re doing. There’s a reason you booked that flight you’re on in the first place. Think about that.”
Likewise, if you’re traveling with others — or your family — it’d be a lot tougher to bite that bullet unless there are enough offers for all of you to take, and you don’t mind waiting longer to get where you’re going.
What happens if they tell me I’m bumped and have no choice in the matter?
Again, this will almost certainly never be the case anymore. After what happened to Dao, airlines realized that it’s much easier to throw a few vouchers at people so that everyone ends up happy, rather than invite another PR nightmare and a huge settlement. But if it were to happen again, you don’t have much legal recourse, so hold out for the $10,000 voucher (United’s new maximum voucher amount, post-Dao) before you leave the plane. Alternatively, if you do get dragged out, make sure your fellow passengers film it, then call a good attorney.
Does it always take longer to get where I’m going if I’m bumped?
Actually, no. Kaplan advises you to get creative: Ask if there’s a nearby airport you can fly into if it works for you — say, Oakland or San Jose instead of San Francisco; Fort Lauderdale instead of Miami; La Guardia instead of JFK; etc. (This is obviously more doable if you’re flying only with carry-on luggage.) “I once got to where I was going before I was supposed to get there after volunteering,” he says. And he still got a voucher!
Where do they ask for volunteers? Just at the gate?
Not only at the gate nowadays, although that’s most common — it can also happen when you check in to your flight online or through the airline’s app. Don’t worry — they won’t ever automatically bump you without talking to you about it at the gate first. For now, you’re just on their list as somebody who might be willing to volunteer. Sometimes in this process they’ll offer a set voucher amount upfront, or they might ask you to bid. Most often, though, they wait until around the time of boarding.
“But it does happen where you’ll board a flight and they’ll come into the plane and say hey, we need volunteers,” says Kaplan. “That’s when you have a lot of leverage to take more money. Again, they don’t want another Dr. Dao.”
Do they normally have trouble finding enough volunteers, forcing them to raise the offer?
Nope! “Typically you have to act quickly,” says Kaplan. “More often than not, they get all the volunteers they need.”
Can I actually travel cheaply by doing this on purpose?
Yes — Kaplan’s actually done it himself. “Most people show up at the airport hoping to get on a flight, but some people show up hoping to not get on,” he says. “There are people who travel around the world on denied boarding compensation. I did a fair amount of that when I was younger. In the right circumstances I’m still happy to do it. I wouldn’t even wait for the gate agent to announce any volunteers for a flight — if I had a feeling a flight was full, I’d go up there first and say, ‘Hey need any volunteers for this one?’ to make sure I was on the list first.”
Again, before you try this or take any denied boarding compensation offer, think about your immediate trip first. As shitty as airports (and airport hotels) can be, it may actually be worth it to wait — it’s all up to you (and whether or not you can already see airport cops boarding the plane).