Personal Finance

How To Benefit By Volunteering To Take Another Flight

How To Benefit By Volunteering To Take Another Flight

The recent United Airlines fiasco, in which a passenger was forcibly ejected from a plane to make room for a team member that needed his spot, highlighted the potential consequences when airlines overbook flights in the hope that some booked passengers will not show up--and then more show up than they banked on.
plane at airport
plane at airport Source: Getty Images

In reality, though, fewer than 1 in 10 airline passengers who were bumped from a flight in 2016 were displaced against their will. The vast majority volunteered to give up their seat in exchange for a ticket on a later flight and compensation. On the dozen most prominent airlines, which include Delta, United, American and Southwest, some 434,000 passengers were voluntarily re-booked in 2016, compared with 40,600 who were forced to do so involuntarily.

Naturally, volunteering to take a later flight doesn’t work with all schedules or passenger priorities. I you do step up, however, your gesture can earn you hundreds of dollars, and sometimes other perks--like a seat upgrade on the flight on which you’re rebooked. Here’s a guide to making the most of "voluntary bumping."

How does it work?

When an airline realizes there are more people than seats for a given flight, they start by offering an incentive for people to volunteer to wait for a later flight. Compensation takes many forms, depending on the airline and the airport, and since this is a volunteer situation, the airlines are not required to offer anything in particular. For example, Delta on occasion offers gift cards, including American Express cards that can be used for almost any purchases, but in other cases only offers vouchers to be exchanged for Delta tickets or upgrades.

Many times, an offer will start around $500 or $600, although the initial amount may also be lower. If no-one volunteers, the incentives may increase in small increments until someone agrees. In the wake of the United incident, Delta sought a PR advantage by raising their maximum inducement to give up a seat to $9,950, and United boosted their maximum to as much as $10,000 a few weeks later. However, it’s extremely unlikely you’d be offered anywhere near those figures, since some passengers are prepared to be inconvenienced for far less.

Deciding when to take the compensation is a tricky gamble. Ideally, of course, one waits until the offer is as high as possible. However, the longer you wait, the greater the chance of seats running on the next available flight, meaning you could end up volunteering to be pushed back to the following day. And once the price gets high, more people start considering taking the offer, so you have less of a chance of being the first to the counter when the more enticing figure is announced.

If you’re thinking about accepting an offer to be re-booked, you should consider:

  • The amount of compensation (even the lower offers of $500 can be appealing if your plans are flexible)
  • Whether you might get a higher class of seat on your rebooked flight. Airlines are sometimes willing to offer you an upgraded seat, say with more legroom, as part of the compensation package, especially if you’re a member of their frequent-flyer program.
  • The form of compensation (the DOT recommends inquiring about blackout and expiration dates, and whether a voucher is good for an international flight)
  • The duration of time for the delay (if it’s hours or overnight, inquire about hotel and meal stipends)
  • How many seats are needed (if many seats are needed, the offer is more likely to go up as the staffers get more desperate for the final volunteers)
  • Whether you checked a bag (if you did, it’ll already be loaded on the plane, and unavailable to access until your new flight lands at your destination airport)