By Travel columnist
updated 8/10/2005 3:31:38 PM ET 2005-08-10T19:31:38

Airlines say they are in business to get you safely from one place to another. But let’s face it: They’re in it for the money. That’s why, when you show up for your flight, the gate agent sometimes asks for volunteers to take a later flight. It’s called a bump. What happens next is called a bribe, and it can pay off very nicely — in tickets, upgrades and/or cold, hard cash.

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Why do airlines oversell flights? Because passengers have an average no-show rate of about 15 percent. Say an airline booked only 300 passengers for a 300-seat flight to Europe. On average, 45 of those passengers would fail to show up. The airplane would still go to Europe, but 45 seats would be empty. The no-shows get their money back, so the airline loses the revenue from those 45 seats, which digs deep into the company’s profit margin. So the airline overbooks the flight. In a sense, the airline is depending on the passengers to be 15 percent unreliable.

It’s when everybody shows up that it starts getting interesting. To persuade some of those passengers to take another flight, the gate agents offer their bribes. Typically, the offer will include an upgrade on the next flight, a $400 flight coupon good for travel anywhere the airline flies, and hotel accommodations, if needed.

Tempting? Sure. Still, passengers usually scoff at the offer, because they’ve got to be where they’ve got to be, and when they’ve got to be there. If the airline doesn’t get enough volunteers on the first call, the offer goes up. I have seen the offer rise to $1,200 cash plus a first-class ticket on any flight on our airline. It’s a game, and anyone can play.

One late-August afternoon, I met a passenger who played the game very well. Stanley was waiting for the same flight that I was. Unfortunately, the flight was full, and since I was a pass rider (an airline employee on standby), there was no way I was going to get on. I was frustrated, but when the call was made for volunteers to take another flight, Stanley’s face lit up in a smile.

“Why are you so pleased?” I inquired.

“Well, as the offer goes up, so does my price,” he chuckled.

“I don’t follow you.”

“Well, I have volunteered already, and this makes three days in a row.”

No wonder Stanley was pleased. Over three days of bumped flights, he had raked in $2,200 worth of flight coupons, three free nights in a lovely hotel in a great city, free meal vouchers, four free 15-minute long-distance phone calls, and an upgrade on the next flight he gets on (if he gets on). He said it happened every year, and that this was the third year in a row that he was doing “the bump thing,” as he put it. One year he collected more than $8,000 and finally ended up with a ticket refund after more than a week of being bumped from one flight to another.

The “bump thing” works for Stanley because he is flexible. He has his own business, and he plans his vacation for the same time and same flight every year. While he does have things to do when he finally arrives at his destination, he also gets a lot of work done on his laptop while hanging around the airport. Meanwhile, he usually manages to collect his company’s travel money for the year.

Stanley knew I was a pass rider, so he offered me a place to sleep that night. Considering that there wasn’t going to be a vacant room in the city, I took him up on it. He had bet the hotel manager that he would be back, and his prize was a suite, so there was plenty of room for me.

We ate and drank on the airline’s meal voucher and tried again the next day. When the familiar announcement came over the PA system, Stanley started chuckling again. I bade him farewell, as I had to find some way to get back to work that day.

Stanley’s game is perfectly legal, ethical, moral and fair. The airlines don’t care how many times you volunteer; they just want to free up those seats. So if you hear that call for volunteers and can afford the time, go for it. There are lots of rewards, and who knows — it could lead to serendipitous adventures.

Here are some tips to remember when bumping your way to cheap travel.

  1. Pay attention. If you volunteer your seat and the price of the bribe later goes up, make sure you get the top price as well.
  2. Get it in writing. If the airline promises you travel credit, an upgrade, dinner — or anything else — have the agent write down the offer and sign it with her employee number. Finding the same gate agent again may be difficult. If you don’t have proof of the offer, you could miss out.
  3. Ask for more. When the agent rebooks your flight, ask for an upgrade. Many times, there will be no problem granting the request. If the airline can’t deliver on the upgrade at the time of the flight, get some type of travel credit or compensation for that as well.
  4. Have a good night. If your new flight schedule requires a night stay, the airline must provide hotel accommodation. Make sure you get a hotel with adequate airport transportation, or get a taxi voucher.
  5. Waste time wisely. If the airline books you on a flight requiring more than a two-hour wait in the airport, ask for permission to use its club lounge. Here you will find such amenities as free drinks, snacks, television, and computer workstations.
  6. Do it all again. If your rebooked flight is also oversold, go ahead and give up your seat again.

Denied boarding situations happen anytime there is an oversold flight, but in my experience, they are most likely to occur during major holidays, spring break, and at the beginning and end of summer. Stanley mentioned August 29 to September 7 as prime bumping season.

And guess what? That’s just three weeks away.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, e-mail him. Try visiting Wysong's forum.

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