One of the best paydays in air travel is volunteering your seat on an oversold flight — also called voluntary denied boarding, or VDB. You can get $200, $400, sometimes even $800 or more depending on how dire the situation is and the sort of flight that’s oversold. For example, a long-haul business class cabin that’s oversold by five is probably more likely to offer a credit in the $800+ range than a short regional hop oversold by one.
Marcin wrote in last week with a question on volunteering his seat on an upcoming flight. He had heard stories from a family member who does this routinely and racks up tons of credits or upgrades to the next cabin. There are lots of different policies in play here, so I’ll walk through them one at a time.
The Context of Overbooking
Flights can be overbooked for a single cabin or for the entire plane. Airline are looking to ensure that the plane is full, and they overbook because they expect a certain number of people to miss their connections, cancel, or simply not show up. If a flight is only overbooked for a single cabin, then passengers may be moved up to the next cabin. This is called an operational upgrade (“operational” because it needs to be done in order to get the plane full of passengers and depart on time). If a flight is overbooked for the entire plane, then some passengers may be offered a VDB credit to take a later flight.
If no one volunteers and there are no operational upgrades possible, then we move into the territory of involuntary denied boarding (IDB). Depending on the airline and the local jurisdiction, penalties apply if the airline can’t get you to your destination within a certain time frame. But if it’s possible to rebook you on a different flight that still gets you in close to your original scheduled arrival, then no compensation may be warranted. Those who are rebooked on a different airline could at least try to get credit for both flights — request Original Routing Credit for the flight you were bumped from and don’t forget to add your frequent flyer number to the new flight before you board. I won’t be discussing IDB in this post.
Getting Operational Upgrades
Before the airline gives anyone a chance to volunteer their seat, they’ll resort to upgrades. Operational upgrades, like other kinds of upgrades, are almost always provided to customers with elite status or high fare classes. They come after upgrades using miles or cash and after complimentary upgrades. You might think, Why would there still be any upgrades left? Well, those don’t always meet the gate agent’s needs or may not take place at all (e.g., no complimentary upgrades on most international routes).
Voluntary Denied Boarding
Given the number of elite frequent flyers able to fill the front cabins and the fact that (I think) many of my readers are traveling with the cheapest tickets available, operational upgrades for non-elite passengers are not likely to be a factor. You’ll want to focus on VDB instead.
Getting yourself added to “the list” of potential volunteers is sometimes viewed as Very Important. Not necessarily. The list may as well be a sticky note stuffed under a book. At this point the agent is after convenience. The flight is probably delayed due to all the reshuffled seats and now he or she still has to deal with you and making sure you get to wherever you’re going. When time is short, simply being the closest volunteer to the podium can make you the winner. It is easier than searching for the passenger who “deserves” the upgrade, who may have been on the list but who isn’t in the gate area or may have already boarded.
It’s debatable whether it helps to be a single passenger. Sometimes if the agent needs two volunteers he will pick a couple traveling together because it makes it easier than searching for two individuals. Again, the agent has discretion to do whatever it takes to get the plane out on-time and as full as possible.
Being on the list is still helpful. It conveys your interest, but there are just too many ways for you to be overlooked. Ask the ticket agent when you check in to establish some semblance of priority and ask again at the gate about 1-2 hours before departure when the agent first appears to make him or her aware of your presence. And then stay there. Don’t annoy them. Just wait and be available if you’re needed. By the way, this will really screw up your plans to go to the lounge.
You Probably Can’t Predict an Oversold Flight
Marcin’s family member has a special advantage in working for an airline. Because airline employees can travel for free on standby — even on other carriers — they may have access to information on the oversold situation that you and I don’t. In theory this makes it easier to estimate the success of a standby.
When the employee actually buys his or her own ticket, then it becomes a way to leverage a VDB. Airlines expect a certain fraction of customers to cancel or not show up, but knowing that number can allow you to make your own predictions. Imagine a flight through a busy hub is oversold by 10, but amazingly there are no weather delays. No one knows that until the day of. But now no connections will be missed, and that flight is probably going to need a few VDBs.
The average customer can only view the number of tickets that remain for sale — and just because tickets are unavailable does not mean the plane is oversold. Different flights are oversold to different degrees (or not at all). Non-proprietary information like good weather can give you a sense that VDBs are more likely, but without hard numbers it’s difficult to do more than guess.
Negotiating the Offer
Finally, I like to remind people that they have control over the offer they receive for a VDB. You should never accept a “free flight” as this is usually limited to some maximum fare and may come with other caveats. It is better to ask for a travel credit, a dollar-denominated voucher that you can apply toward a future flight of your own choosing. Depending on the inconvenience caused you should also ask for other forms of compensation, including meal vouchers, a hotel room, lounge access, and an upgrade on your new flight. (You’re not getting cash. That only happens if you were involuntarily denied boarding.)
The agent has a lot of leeway, but they don’t like greedy people anymore than the rest of us. It never hurts to ask for an upgrade. You probably shouldn’t ask for a meal voucher or lounge access if the wait is under three or four hours. Never ask for a hotel unless you will be there overnight. And don’t forget, if there are lots of volunteers in the boarding area, you may have to lower your bid to remain competitive.