Saturday, January 28, 2006

Getting Bumped -- Giving up your seat on an airline

Some of my friends have suggested that I write about something that I have been very successful with -- getting voluntarily bumped by airlines. In this first posting, I hope to explain some of the principles I follow. In subsequent posts, I will talk about some of my exploits, successes, and failures.

Getting bumped for the purposes of this article refers to voluntarily giving up your seat for a flight because the flight is overbooked. The usual reward for doing this is a voucher for a free flight and a guaranteed seat on a later flight. Other benefits include meals and accommodation if you are going to be delayed for more than a couple of hours. Getting upgraded to business or first class is not uncommon. (I have been upgraded a number of times as a "thank you" for volunteering even when the airline has not needed my seat.)

1. Become customer focused. When there is a possibility of being bumped, you have a commodity (an airline ticket) that has risen in value. It is now worth more to the airline than you paid for it, and the airline is expressing interest in buying back your ticket. Some people initiate the process by talking about their “rights.” Many of these rights apply to involuntary bumps. During the negotiation stage, you have no special rights. You are simply a potential vendor and the airline is your customer. There is a lot of competition because other people want to be bumped too. So, in order to make the sale, you need to apply that basic business principle – be easy to do business with.

2. Schedule your trip so that getting bumped is easy. The opportunities are rare so you raise the possibility of being bumped if you organize your life so that you always have a little extra time. If you are going to a wedding, for example, fly out the day before so that you can still be there even if there is a delay. (This is sensible practice even if you have no intention of getting bumped.)

3. Carry airline timetables with you. If you know what the options are, you can often help the airline staff by suggesting flights and routes that may not have occurred to the person you are working with. (I have the schedules of the major airlines in my Palm.)

4. Check in early. Frequently, the first person to volunteer gets to the top of a list.

5. Use an airline that routinely overbooks its planes. I have had bumps from British Airways, Delta, United, Lufthansa, Southwest, US Airways, and Virgin. But some airlines, like JetBlue never overbook their flights.

6. Book flights that might be full. Holiday times are especially good. All my family took trips at Thanksgiving for about five years. The first trip was funded by vouchers from a bump, and that kept us going for five consecutive years. We stopped only because one of us decided she wanted to be home for Thanksgiving one year. (Also, problems mount during the day so you stand a better chance of being bumped on an afternoon or an early evening flight than a morning one. You will almost never be bumped on a "red-eye" from the West coast to the East coast.)

7. Be flexible. If you say you are willing to accept any route, any airline, and any schedule to get to your destination, it makes life easier for your customer (the airline) and you increase the possibility of making a sale.

8. Where possible, use carry-on bags only. You can get a bump if you have checked luggage, but it makes life easier for the airline if they don’t have to retrieve your luggage. Airlines will almost never bump you during a layover if you have checked in baggage.

9. Be available. At the final moment, the airline needs you to confirm your desire to take a bump. If you are sipping champagne in the Singapore Airlines lounge, they will ask the next person in line. (Yes, I did make that mistake once!) So you need to stay close to the desk and respond promptly if your name is called.

10. Be nice. The airline staff are working under a lot of pressure and they need all the help and support they can get. It is your job to satisfy your customer. So, if you want extras (like an upgrade), ask nicely.

11. Ask for a dollar value voucher rather than a free ticket. You will often get one. The advantages are that you can use the voucher towards buying an international flight whereas most American carriers give vouchers for domestic travel only. You frequently increase your buying power with a dollar value voucher. For example, I have bought two tickets for a $400 voucher. Finally, you earn mileage and credits toward elite status if you use vouchers as opposed to free passes. (That is how I have maintained my Premier Executive (gold) status with United for so many years.)

12. If you do get bumped, it is sometimes more fun to get away from the airport while you wait for your rescheduled flight. Sometimes, I have taken the hotel shuttle to an airport hotel. I spent the voucher that I was given for food at the hotel and made use of the pool after my meal.

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