Your flight is overbooked. The airline wants to boot you off its plane. Now.
Or, to be fair to Big Aviation, maybe it's you. Maybe you're looking to beat them at their own game and make some cold, hard cash by volunteering to be bumped off that overbooked, overpressurized metal tube.
Careful, now. Care-ful.
Yes, there could be money in it. Maybe a lot of it. But you also could end up with nothing, or an Amazon gift card that expires in six months, or a voucher good only for future flights on The Airline.
Worse, you could surrender your aisle seat in the hopes of a big payday and then NOT get bumped. You could end up back on that flight in a middle seat in the rear of the plane, next to a bank of overused lavatories, elbow-banging with a couple in the midst of a nasty argument.
Even if you are bumped, by your choice or the airline's, making money is far from a sure thing. Airlines can deny you compensation, for example, for a lot of reasons. Being late to the gate is one. There are others.
So, game the system? It can be done. But there's definitely a but.
"Be prepared," says Rene De Lambert, "that the airlines may game you back."
De Lambert is a frequent flier and travel expert who tells his traveling tales on his blog, renespoints.com. He's played the bump game before with good results.
But, he warns, you not only have to know the rules. You have to know when to play.
First, the rules. You have rights as a ticket-buying passenger on an overbooked flight. They are laid out by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Those rights change, though, depending on a host of circumstances.
Voluntary bumping: If your flight is overbooked, the first thing the airline does is ask for volunteers to give up their seats. The DOT doesn't say how the airlines must compensate the volunteers, or how much, so that varies by airline. Always, the airline will get you on another flight at no charge, although there are no rules on when that next flight will be. Typically, they also give you a travel voucher good for use on future flights. The amount of that voucher can vary. Sometimes, they'll give you additional compensation. Once in a while, it's cash. Sometimes it's gift cards. Delta, for example, offers a choice of cards including American Express gift cards (like cash, but they expire), Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, Bloomingdale's, Amazon.com and others.
Involuntary bumping: If the airlines don't get enough volunteers, they can bump you anyway. That little bit of sunshine is in something called the "contract of carriage," which you agree to when you buy a ticket. (Those contracts can be read on any airline's website. Here's Southwest's. And here's American's.) For an involuntary boot, you get a seat on an upcoming flight to your destination and the DOT requires passengers to be compensated, in various amounts, for their trouble (those amounts are spelled out here). And this is where the cash comes in.
From the DOT's "Fly-Rights":
A caveat to all this, which gamers of the system know: It's all negotiable. For those volunteering to give up their seats — and even for others, considering the recent unsavory press that this United incident generated — everything is negotiable.
The form of compensation. The amount. You can ask for a hotel room for an overnight stay, transportation to and from the airport, meals. You can ask for better seats when you finally get on a flight. An upgrade. A pass to the airline's frequent flier lounge.
A woman and her family, headed to Florida for vacation, recently took voluntary bumps three different times when storms caused cancellations and delays. The family made $11,000.
You can't always get what you want, as it's been said. But if you try sometimes, and you follow the rules ... you can get cash.
"Our Employees are empowered to intervene in all situations with guidance to do right by our Customers," Southwest spokesperson Brandy King tells HowStuffWorks in an email. "That takes limitless forms and is always tailored to unique circumstances. To say we're consistently reviewing and bettering our procedures and policies is a decades-long truth."
De Lambert made more than $7,000 in flight vouchers last year by taking voluntarily bumps, and has taken three or four bumps this year to earn more vouchers and gift cards from Delta. After the United incident, he figures, airlines will be even more willing to work with passengers.
"It's not gaming the system. It's working the system," he says. "It's using the rules to a certain extent."
Nothing is guaranteed when you're faced with a bump. If airlines can give you a travel voucher instead of cash, they'll probably do it. "It's really smart of them to give out their own money," De Lambert says.
But you have rights. Knowing them helps. It may even pay off. In cash.