Airlines are bumping more passengers off flights as they try to wring the last buck out of every seat. But that isn't necessarily bad for savvy fliers.
There's nothing new about carriers selling more tickets than they have seats on a flight. On most trips, a number of passengers — about 10 percent by some estimates — don't show up.
Some buy more than one pricey refundable ticket for a trip and use only one. Other people get stuck in traffic or for some other reason don't make it to the gate in time. Airlines, in turn, are allowed to oversell flights and fill seats that would otherwise go empty.
Carriers have trimmed back on flights for more than a year to better match capacity to demand and help drive up fares. Load factors, the percentage of seats occupied, for many major airlines was close to 85 percent this summer. That means virtually all flights during popular flying hours were slammed. Often more than full. For the first half of this year, more than 38,000 people were bumped involuntarily — up 17 percent from the same period in 2008. Still, they make up a tiny sliver of the 285 million passengers who flew in the United States over those six months.
Airlines must compensate people bumped against their will under federal regulations.
If you're bumped from a domestic flight and put on another one scheduled to arrive an hour to two hours later, the airline must pay you the cost of a one-way ticket to your destination, up to $400. If the flight's scheduled arrival is later than that, you're owed twice the amount, up to $800.
Not in a big hurry? Airlines must ask for volunteers before bumping people involuntarily. They offer free flights and other perks. But there aren't any government rules for compensation. It's strictly whatever you work out with the airline representative at the gate or ticket counter.
Don't sell yourself cheap, says Chris McGinnis, a travel consultant and writer in San Francisco. Flights filled with business travelers are your best bet for being bumped.
His favorite times: Friday or Sunday evening, when business fliers are positioning themselves for a meeting or returning home from a week on the road. Flights to New York, Chicago or other business centers improve your odds.
Don't jump at the airline's first offer. "They typically try to get away with offering as little as they can," McGinnis said. As departure time nears, the deals improve.
Most often, airlines offer travel vouchers in $100 multiples. McGinnis prefers them to free tickets, which can be limited to a specific fare class that's not available on all flights and can be subject to blackout dates.
Also, ask for a guaranteed seat on the next flight to your destination in first or business class. If there's an open seat, it doesn't cost the airline any more to put you in it.
Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3384.