Help! I’ve been bumped!

No, bumping is not the latest craze to hit European dance floors, it’s what airlines do when they have more passengers than seats.

Chances are that you’ve been waiting in the departure gate area and have heard the gate agents ask for volunteers for a later flight. Overbooking has become a very profitable thing for airlines, and they have developed pretty smart mathematical systems to determine which flights have the greatest chances of passengers not showing up. Of course, even the best system is wrong every now and then, and your 88 passenger plane may have 110 people waiting at the gate for a seat.

Smart people prepare for bumps, and make a decent buck by taking the generous voucher in exchange for a later arrival. I’ve played the bumping game several times, and once made over $700 in travel vouchers just by accepting a 4 hour delay in my trip home. Grant Martin wrote about the art of fishing for bumps last year, and it’s a great way to learn how to make some extra money off the airline.

Of course, not every “bump” is voluntarily, and especially during busy times of the year, the airline will have a hard time finding volunteers for their offer. In some cases, they’ll keep raising the offer in the hope that someone snags it, but in the worst case, they’ll start calling out names of passengers who will be denied boarding.
This involuntarily denied boarding or IDB is costly for the airline, but only if you know your rights. The compensation rules for IDB changed this year, and passengers now get a better deal than we originally did with the 30 year old rules these changes replaced.

If the airline denies you boarding, you are entitled to $400, but only if the delay gets you to the first stopover of your trip more than 4 hours past your original arrival time. There is of course some fine print; the $400 is the maximum amount, and the true compensation is 200% of your airfare, with a maximum of $400. The whole thing is quite complicated, but is all described by the Department of Transportation in this document (PDF file).

Some other compensation could come from additional vouchers for food and beverages at the airport, hotel accommodation (on overnight IDB’s) and even free domestic US round trip ticket vouchers. If the airline is really desperate, you could even consider asking for an upgrade on your replacement flight.

When you are offered a voucher, be sure to ask the gate agent about the rules attached to it – some vouchers have so many restrictions that you’ll only ever be able to redeem it on a Monday morning between 8 and 8:30 and only on odd numbered days when the temperature is above 85. A free round trip ticket voucher may sound nice, but if it is impossible to redeem, it’ll be a useless piece of paper,

Remember – the law is on your side when you are denied boarding (assuming you got to the airport on time) so make sure you demand what you are entitled to!