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Being bumped loses value

Fliers hoping to cash in by getting bumped from flights this Thanksgiving may be in for a surprise: The airlines are getting stingier.

Until recently, overbooked flights routinely transformed departure lounges into a sort of auction house. The announcement would set off a bidding war that ended with the happy bumpees walking away with travel vouchers worth, in some cases, more than $1,000, plus a free night's lodging.

Those days may be coming to end. AMR's American Airlines is now limiting the amount of compensation offered to passengers who agree to be bumped. Gate agents have been instructed to offer no more than a $300 voucher for domestic flights, $500 for transcontinental or $800 for flights to Alaska, Hawaii or international destinations.

Other airlines are likely to follow suit. UAL's United Airlines had already changed its policy. The airline currently offers a free domestic coach ticket instead of a dollar-amount voucher, which can often be more flexible, to passengers on domestic flights who volunteer to give up a seat. The ticket is valid for one year.

"We don't wheel and deal," says a United spokeswoman. "We offer a free ticket. If there aren't enough volunteers, then we have to bump involuntarily."

That's bad news for travelers ahead of the holidays, one of the busiest times of the year for air travel and one that traditionally has seen lots of overbooked flights. The proportion of people denied boarding is down so far this year amid the travel slump. But that will change as airlines continue to pare down their flights to accurately reflect passenger demand.

Gate agents still have some flexibility to make special offers. But the big payoffs fliers have gotten used to may become the exception rather than the rule, because this is an area where the beleaguered airlines can easily control costs.

Last month, for instance, passengers willing to be bumped on a United flight between Denver and Dallas were being offered a ticket in coach loaded with restrictions, according to Bumptracker.com, a Web site where travelers report their bump experiences. By contrast, 18 months earlier, on a March 11, 2000, Dallas-Denver flight, United was offering a $500 voucher to passengers willing to give up seats.

The government sets minimum compensation levels that airlines must offer passengers bumped against their will, but those haven't changed since 1978. The rules specify that if the airline can get you to your destination no more than two hours later than expected (or no more than four hours late for international flights), then the compensation is the amount of the fare _ up to $200. If the carrier misses that deadline, the payoff doubles to $400.

Last year, the Department of Transportation ordered a review of these compensation levels, but that review has been put off.

If you're bumped involuntarily, airlines might let you have vouchers if that's what you prefer. But you should ask for more than the government minimum. In fact, it's in the airlines' interest to offer vouchers or free tickets, as opposed to cash: That way, the airline gets to hang on to its cash.

However, vouchers can have disadvantages for travelers. For instance, they may expire in a year and become worthless.

The government doesn't regulate what the airlines offer passengers who volunteer to be bumped. Northwest Airlines limits its compensation to a $300 voucher for domestic flights and $750 for international passengers. Its vouchers, however, carry some restrictions.

US Airways offers passengers who volunteer to be bumped either free domestic tickets or dollar-amount vouchers. Other airlines are less forthcoming about what passengers can expect to receive: Delta Air Lines offers travel vouchers tied to the length of delay experienced by passengers who volunteer.

United gives free tickets instead of vouchers to domestic passengers who volunteer to give up seats. Passengers on international flights, as well as flights to Alaska and Hawaii, are still offered vouchers, though they have gotten less generous. United, for instance, currently gives $200 vouchers for delays of less than three hours; previously, the voucher kicked in after a delay of only two hours.

"Customers view the free ticket as more valuable," a United spokeswoman says. The free ticket carries a 14-day advance-reservation restriction and is limited to travel in the lower 48 states.

In light of that, some travelers prefer the voucher _ and have managed to persuade gate agents to hand them out. Brian Moore, a Chicago auditor, will fly to London this month using a United travel voucher he got after being bumped from a flight between Chicago and San Francisco this summer. The airline tried to offer him a free domestic ticket, but Moore insisted on the voucher. "I can get miles and upgrade, which you can't do with a free ticket," he says.

Restrictions on free tickets vary from airline to airline. Some come with blackout travel dates. But one big issue is that you often can't upgrade from them or get frequent-flier points for them _ both of which you can do with a ticket bought using a voucher. The move away from vouchers may be particularly frustrating for business travelers, who tend to prefer compensation that allows for upgrades and can earn them miles.

The day before Thanksgiving is traditionally the busiest travel day of the year, so the odds of getting bumped rise drastically. Travelers who don't mind arriving a course or two into the meal can improve their chances of a bump by checking in for the flight as early as possible. Once at the gate, ask the agent if the flight is oversold, and volunteer on the spot to give up your ticket. Airlines bump on a first-come, first-served basis, so those who get their names in first are guaranteed to be left behind if the airline determines volunteers are needed.

Smaller bribes

Here's what you can expect if you volunteer to get bumped:

+ American: Recently ordered its gate agents to stop being so generous when offering travel vouchers to people who agree to be bumped. Now, you won't be able to get more than $300 for most domestic flights.

+ United: Is giving out round-trip tickets instead of the more flexible travel vouchers. But the tickets have heavy restrictions: You have to book at least 14 days in advance, and you can't go to Hawaii.

+ Northwest: It's also handing out restricted round-trip tickets. Gate agents will sometimes offer the choice of a voucher instead _ but they, too, are capped in value. (For example, $750 max on international flights.)

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