“Ladies and gentlemen, unfortunately, due to the weather and necessary routing, we are currently having a weight and balance issue and are looking for three volunteers with flexible travel plans to come to see me at the front of the plane and take a later flight to New York in exchange for $1,000 in future United credit each.”
The gate attendant who had stepped onto the delayed plane with this “bad news” had barely finished saying those words before my seatbelt was unbuckled and I was shooting toward the front of the plane.
I was flying with my two kids, and that $3,000 credit was the right price for the three of us to get to New York City a few hours later that night.
And as promised, once we grabbed our carry-on bags and quickly hustled off the plane, United quickly processed each of our flight credits (good for the next 12 months) at the gate, booked us on the next flight to New York and threw in $20 in vouchers for each of us for dinner at the airport while we waited for the next flight.
This wasn’t a fluke.
On our flight home from LaGuardia Airport two days later, the gate agent again needed volunteers to take a later flight back to Houston.
This time, the flight was oversold. The flight credit offer started at $500 per person and increased to $750 when there weren’t takers at the lower amount. Unfortunately, we couldn’t participate this time as the next available flight wasn’t until the next day and airspace in the Northeast was shaping up to be a hot mess.
However, this trend of too-full flights and opportunities to earn flight credit by being flexible will likely play out at gates across the country for the next few hot, busy travel months.
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There will be opportunities to get flight credit to take a later flight
It’s no secret that summer is a busy travel season, with weekends, such as the one we were traveling, ranking as some of the busiest days of the year to fly.
So with full flights (some with more tickets sold to passengers than there are seats on the plane) and weather that can necessitate flying with fewer passengers than the maximum number of seats on the plane, the situations that played out on our recent flights will happen again numerous times this summer, especially during the busiest travel days.
Airlines prefer to find volunteers rather than bump passengers involuntarily
Overbooking flights and denying boarding to passengers as a result is not illegal, but it doesn’t win airlines many points in the court of public opinion.
So, when more people show up for the flight than anticipated, or if the airline can’t use as many seats on the plane as it had planned for whatever reason, airlines typically start asking for volunteers who are willing to give up their seats, usually in exchange for something.
While involuntarily bumping passengers isn’t illegal, certain monetary amounts must be awarded per U.S. Department of Transportation rules — assuming your situation falls into the prescribed definition, which does have caveats.
If you are involuntarily denied boarding, and the airline can’t get you to your destination within an hour of the original schedule, you are entitled to 200% of your one-way fare or $775, whichever is lower. If the airline can’t get you there within two hours (four if it’s an international flight), that amount increases to 400% of your one-way fare or $1,550, whichever is lower.
However, those rules don’t apply if the airline can find volunteers to willingly give up their seats, as we did.
There are no rules for what is required to be awarded to volunteers, so the only real threshold is what passengers are willing to raise their hands and accept.
A good sign your flight might be heading for an oversold situation is if, when you check in for your flight, there’s a screen that asks if you might be willing to volunteer to take a later flight. It’s possible the airline won’t ultimately need volunteers on that flight, but it might.
Things to know about getting voluntary bump compensation
Every situation is unique and different airlines handle these things in their own ways, but many options are on the table when the airline needs your seat.
The more it needs it, the more likely you will get a yes to your requests. Here are some things to remember if you volunteer to be bumped to another flight in exchange for compensation.
Make sure you’re physically close to the gate and/or ready to quickly step up if you want to volunteer when the airline needs passengers to take bump compensation in exchange for a future flight. Typically, the order in which you line up to see the gate agent (or at the front of the plane, in my case) to volunteer is the order they will go in. You can also go up and ask the gate agent when you first arrive at the gate and let them know you’re willing to help out if they need your seat if you think the flight may be (too) full.
Do a little homework
Research other available flights if you think your airline may need volunteers to take other flights so you’ll have a good idea of what’s possible. Some airlines will rebook you on other airlines while others will not, but check everything to see what might work best.
Be certain about when the next confirmed seat to your destination is available. Don’t accept standby tickets or say yes to being a volunteer until you are certain you have a confirmed seat to get you where you want to be by the time you want to be there.
Know what’s offered
Have a clear understanding of what is being offered. It’s probably not cash but is most likely future flight credit or potentially a gift card. For example, Delta Air Lines has a program where you can choose the retailer for your gift card. However, understand the type of credit and any restrictions before you say yes.
The amount of flight credit is negotiable. It’s normal for the offer to increase over time if there aren’t takers at the lower amounts. For example, if there are no nibbles at $250 in credit, it may go to $500, etc. You can also politely ask if more is available, which there may or may not be based on whether the airline can find volunteers at the amounts it first offers.
Offers may increase
If the amount the airline offers increases to get more volunteers, everyone who volunteers may get that higher amount. This isn’t guaranteed and may change as more airlines experiment with using a reverse bidding-type process in their apps for oversold situations. However, in the traditional way, where everyone is at the gate until the airline gets enough volunteers, it’s still likely all of them will get the highest amount.
Try for first class
You can ask for first-class seats on your new flight. Again, there are no guarantees this will be a yes, but if they can accommodate you in first class on another flight, they might. In our case, we lost two of our three upgrades on our new flight as it was simply already full, but if we wanted to wait for a flight with first-class seats, I imagine we could have.
Ask for extras
It’s also fair to ask for meal vouchers, a hotel room (if requiring an overnight stay) and cab rides to and from the hotel or to an alternate airport if required.
As always, be nice. A flight that’s too full is likely a stressful situation for the agents who are working the flight. The nicer and more understanding you are, the better for all involved.
Save your voucher
Take photos of your voucher and keep it in a safe space so you don’t do all of that for nothing!
Related: Can it be too hot to safely fly?
It’s busy, it’s hot, and if you fly enough this summer, you just might get the chance to make a split-second decision like we did and give up your seats on the flight in exchange for future flight credit — and sometimes even more.
We got to New York City about two hours later than originally planned and, in exchange, have $3,000 to spend on United flights for the next 12 months — and I’ll be keeping my ears open for a chance to do that again.