Flight Overbooked? Perfect: These Frequent Flyers Want To Get Bumped

Apr 27, 2017
Originally published on April 28, 2017 9:20 am

United Airlines is increasing the amount it will pay passengers who get bumped from overbooked flights to as much as $10,000. That announcement comes after its CEO, Oscar Munoz, called a now-infamous video showing police violently dragging a seated passenger off a full flight earlier this month "horrifying."

"When we read that story, our reaction was, 'Dang, I wish we'd been on that flight,' " says Fay Fishman, a veteran traveler with a love of getting bumped off overbooked flights.

Fishman is among a select group of travelers who spend considerable effort trying to get bumped from overbooked flights; they are, in fact, overjoyed to give up their seats in exchange for travel vouchers or cash the airlines give out as compensation.

Fishman is what I would call a serious player of The Bump Game. She and her husband are law partners who split their life and work between Phoenix and Minneapolis, flying at least once a week, not including leisure travel.

"We seem to live on airplanes and we love it," Fishman says. They even love hanging out for hours, getting work done at the airport lounge or having a drink at a restaurant.

But gunning for bumps is also a serious effort. Fishman sets their schedule six months to a year in advance, aiming to travel at the busiest times.

"On a Monday school holiday, a Thursday or Friday before that is a great bump possibility," she says. "You know, it also helps when you don't have young kids [her husband has two grown children], you don't have pets and you don't have green plants, so you have nothing that needs your care and attention."

Fishman says they arrive at the airport at least an hour before their flights, and aim to be the first to speak to the gate agents — some of whom already know her — to enthusiastically volunteer. She even keeps Starbucks gift cards to give to the gate agents as "thank you" gifts if they do get bumped.

Fishman says she and her husband once scored $3,200 on a single trip. Using these rewards, the couple has traveled to the Middle East, Asia and all around Europe.

The winnings can depend on the timing of the alternate flight, or the airline's own policy. Regulations allow up to $1,350 for bumping a passenger from a domestic flight; Delta recently authorized supervisors to offer up to $9,950, and now United has followed suit.

Brian Karimzad, who sometimes plays the game himself, says knock-on airline backups from bad weather can add up to big money.

"You get bumped off one flight, and then that flight ends up getting overbooked and you get on another one that's overbooked, and you could end up with thousands of dollars in compensation," he says.

Karimzad is director of MileCards.com, a travel rewards site that recently ranked Delta as the carrier likeliest to pay to bump passengers. Other pro tips? Airlines prefer volunteers without checked baggage. Also, smaller regional planes are 50 percent likelier to bump.

The game favors students or people who can work remotely — not those scheduled for big meetings, weddings or funerals.

"The most important thing is you have to have a lot of time," says Brian Sumers, airline reporter for travel website Skift. And, he says, if you play, know you're up against some seasoned competition.

"There's a small but vocal minority that tries to come up with ways to beat airlines at their own game," Sumers says.

Anthropology professor Montana Miller commutes weekly to Bowling Green State University in Ohio from her home in Long Island, N.Y. Her annual airline bill tops $20,000, so she loves vouchers.

"Free money!" she says. "It's like a jackpot; it's like winning the lottery a little bit. ... It's unexpected money that just helps me out with my financial stress." To her, waiting another several hours at the gate is bliss: "I'm an anthropologist, so I really enjoy the airport environment; I enjoy the human drama that takes place there."

The downside, she says, is the fact that she wins a voucher about 5 percent of the time. "Most of the time I get my heart broken."

In fact, airlines bump passengers about 40 percent less frequently than they did about two decades ago, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

Because her odds are low, Miller says she has never asked for more than the typical $400 voucher. That, too, is part of her strategy. "The problem with saying, 'I'm going to hold out,' is that there's going to be someone else who's happy to take less money."

Then there are Bump Game champions like Todd Gladfelter, a San Francisco meteorologist. "From around the year 2000 to about 2006, I didn't pay for a single airline ticket out of pocket," he says.

That's an achievement, when you consider he travels, on average, every week. He says it pays to do research before talking to the gate agent.

"When you come up and say, 'Hey, here's an alternative flight that I have,' they'll be very appreciative of that, and might even choose you over another passenger because you came up prepared," he explains.

Breaking the news that he's won a voucher, once again, to his waiting parents can be another matter.

"Oh, I'm going to be on a later flight," Gladfelter tells them. Initially, they were disappointed, but now they're used to it, and they know he'll use the funds to come visit again.

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United Airlines has settled with passenger David Dao for an undisclosed amount. Dao is the 69-year-old doctor who refused to be bumped from his flight earlier this month and was dragged from his seat by airport security. United Airlines now says police should not have been called when there was no safety or security threat and that it should not have tried to add four employees as passengers to a booked flight at the last minute.

Beginning tomorrow, the airline will give employees more flexibility in handling difficult situations, and it will also raise the amount offered to passengers to give up their seats when needed, going up to $10,000.

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That big increase in compensation will be welcome news to a small band of hearty travelers, those who intentionally book themselves on crowded flights hoping to get bumped. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports on their favorite strategies.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Fay Fishman is what I would call a serious player of the bump game. She and her husband are law partners who split their life and work between Phoenix and Minneapolis, flying at least once a week.

FAY FISHMAN: Now we're in San Antonio at a legal conference, so we seem to live on airplanes, and we love it.

NOGUCHI: Fishman sets their schedules six months to a year in advance, aiming to travel at the busiest times.

FISHMAN: On a Monday school holiday, a Thursday or Friday before that is a great bump possibility. You know, it also helps when you don't have young kids, you don't have pets and you don't have green plants. So you have nothing that needs your care and attention.

NOGUCHI: Fishman says they arrive early to talk to the gate agents, some of whom already know her, to enthusiastically volunteer. She and her husband once scored $3,200 on a single trip.

FISHMAN: We missed a day of the vacation, but we got enough on a voucher to get another vacation out of it.

NOGUCHI: The winnings can depend on the length of delay or the airline's own policy. Regulations allow up to $1,350 for getting bumped off a domestic flight, but United offered only $800 to its passengers on that oversold flight at Chicago's O'Hare. Delta recently authorized supervisors to offer up to $10,000. Brian Sumers, a reporter for travel website Skift, has written about bumping.

BRIAN SUMERS: There's a small but vocal minority that sort of sits on the Internet every day and tries to come up with ways to beat airlines at their own game.

NOGUCHI: He says a flexible schedule is key. The game favors students or people who can work remotely, not those scheduled for big meetings, weddings or funerals. And he says it helps to have a strategy. Although, luck can also play a role. Bad weather, for example, can add up to big winnings. Occasional player Brian Karimzad says backed up flights are gold mines.

BRIAN KARIMZAD: You get bumped off one flight, and then that flight ends up getting overbooked. And you get on another one that's overbooked, and you could end up with thousands of dollars in compensation.

NOGUCHI: Karimzad is director of milecards.com, a consumer site that recently ranked Delta the likeliest carrier to pay to bump passengers. Other pro tips - airlines prefer volunteers without checked baggage. Also, smaller regional planes are 50 percent likelier to bump.

Anthropology professor Montana Miller commutes weekly to Bowling Green State University in Ohio from her home in Long Island, N.Y. Her annual airline bill tops $20,000, so she loves vouchers.

MONTANA MILLER: Free money - it's like a jackpot. (Laughter) You know, it's like winning the lottery. It's wonderful. It's unexpected money that just helps me out with my financial stress.

NOGUCHI: She wins roughly 1 out of 20 flights.

MILLER: Most of the time, I get my heart broken.

NOGUCHI: Miller says she's never asked for more than the typical $400 voucher.

MILLER: The problem with saying I'm going to hold out is that there's going to be someone else who's happy to take less money.

NOGUCHI: Then there are bump champions like Todd Gladfelter, a San Francisco meteorologist.

TODD GLADFELTER: From around the year 2000 to about 2006, I didn't pay for a single airline ticket out of pocket.

NOGUCHI: That's an achievement when you consider he travels on average every week. He says it pays to do research before talking to the gate agent.

GLADFELTER: When you come up and say, hey, here's an alternative flight that I have, they'll be very appreciative of that and might even choose you over another passenger because you came up prepared.

NOGUCHI: Breaking the news to his parents waiting for him to land can be another matter.

GLADFELTER: Oh, I'm going to be on a later flight, sorry. And they weren't super thrilled about that.

NOGUCHI: Gladfelter says they make peace knowing he'll use the funds to come visit again. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.