When Volunteering To Bump (Sort Of) Backfires…

Filed Under: American, Travel

As many of you are probably aware, airlines often oversell flights, and in some cases they need to bump confirmed passengers because they have more confirmed passengers than seats. When that happens, airlines are first required to ask for volunteers, who will be removed from the flight in exchange for agreed upon compensation. Only as a last resort will passengers be involuntarily denied boarding.

Anyway, on Friday night I was scheduled to fly from Los Angeles to Phoenix to Tampa, with the first flight leaving at 9:30PM, and the connecting flight leaving at 1AM. I really wasn’t looking forward to this itinerary, as it would be my first domestic redeye in a while. I do everything I can to avoid them, as I’m really getting too old for domestic redeyes.

Before getting to the airport I checked how full the flights would be, and noticed they were both sold out (which meant the inventory showed as “F0Y0”). I wasn’t too optimistic that they’d need volunteers, since I don’t remember the last time I’ve been on a flight that needed volunteers. Airlines are just getting better at managing inventory nowadays.

This was the closest I’ve been to getting bumped in a long time, so I figured I’d share my experience.

My near-bump experience, which (sort of) backfired

When I showed up at the gate for my Los Angeles to Phoenix flight I asked if they’d need volunteers.

“You want to volunteer?”
“Sure, I’m not really excited about taking a redeye.”
“We’re offering a $500 voucher for taking the next flight, is that okay?”
“Works for me!”
“What’s your final destination?”

After the agent typed for a few seconds he said he didn’t have another flight to Tampa available. Of course I had done my research in advance, so gave him a couple of flights that worked. Moments later he had me protected on the new routing.

“Just hang around for a bit and we’ll give you the voucher and new flights when the door closes.”

I had a good exit row aisle seat, though during the boarding process my upgrade cleared, so the other gate agent paged me. The gate agent I was working with told him to skip me, given that I was being bumped.

Finally 12 minutes before departure the gate agent said “we don’t need you, let’s go.” Fair enough, when you agree to take a bump there’s always the risk that some people don’t show up, and typically agents still make you fly then (though I’ve had situations where flights have been so oversold that they bump you in advance).

We start walking down the jet bridge and he closed the door behind me and the two other volunteers. Literally a minute later I could see through the passengers who were booked on the flight looking through the glass panel in the jet bridge door, unhappy that they missed the flight. Perhaps that’s part of what makes getting bumped so tough nowadays — the airlines keep closing the door earlier and earlier.

The gate agent handed me a boarding pass for a middle seat in economy and said my bag would have to be checked.

“I was trying to help you guys out and now my upgrade was given away, seat changed, and I have to gate check my bag? That doesn’t seem very fair.”

He agreed, so compromised by letting me gate check the bag so that it would show up on the jet bridge on arrival, rather than on the carousel at my final destination. He also went onboard and got my exit row economy seat back. Of course I got an evil glare from the passengers who was moved to a middle seat from the exit row aisle seat. I still didn’t get the upgrade I had cleared into, though.

Bottom line

Ultimately it wasn’t a big deal, and if anything I enjoy the rush of volunteering to bump. There’s always a lot of uncertainty, and sometimes they may not need volunteers, even if it definitely looks like they will initially.

On one hand this was exciting, as it’s the first time in several years that I’ve been on a flight that looked like it would need volunteers. At the same time, I’ve volunteered dozens of times in the past (many years ago), and this was one of the more poorly handled situations. The agent first made it sound like the bump was a sure thing, and then gave away my upgrade and decent economy seat. Fortunately he at least got me back my exit row seat, and my gate checked bag could be picked up on the jet bridge, rather than on the carousel on arrival.

With Thanksgiving coming up, hopefully some of you guys have luck with a voluntary denied boarding!

  1. Sounds exciting. Monday ,Tuesday , and Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving are the best chances to get bumped. The Friday morning after Thanksgiving is always quiet. Your upgrade would clear anywhere in the world.

  2. The bumpertunity really depends so much on a fast-acting, efficient gate agent team.

    This past year, I got an excellent bump. I was flying Delta from ATL to Hawaii (KOA) via LAX. When I arrived at LAX and went to my connecting gate, they were asking for volunteers. I was first to the counter.

    While one agent processed my $800 Amex gift card (my gift for being bumped) the other feverishly worked to get me on a United flight that was basically departing at the same time.

    It all worked seamlessly although I did have to do an old fashioned OJ Simpson run thru the terminals to get to my United flight on time.

    I arrived in Kona 20 minutes before my Delta flight with $800 in my pocket (which was more than I paid for the entire trip).

  3. @Phil How did you get the $800 GC? I just got an $800 voucher for DL. I would have rather had the GC / cash.

  4. Lucky can you elaborate what “protected me on the flight” means and how it works. Sorry for the beginner question

  5. @Dave…when they protect you on another flight it literally means they confirm a seat on an alternate flight while keeping your original reservation confirmed.

  6. Congrats, you wasted the workers’ time and pissed off other passengers with your sense of entitlement for snatching back your upgrade that you willingly gave up. I guess your concept of “fair” only involves you getting what you want, screw everyone else. #entitledmillennial

  7. WR– did you read anything he said? He did not get the upgrade that he was originally cleared for. Maybe stop being such an entitled baby boomer and actually read the post.

  8. Working with Cathay there’s a lot of students flying from LHR, always very keen to take the vol payment. But very disappointed faces when we eventually got them on. Still, they’re given US$50 to spend on board just for volunteering.

  9. Ben, it’s obviously a crap shoot when you agree to be bumped. You know this. You can often lose your reserved seat and get a worse one in the process, as this case shows. That’s on you as part of the risk/benefit gamble. Taking the seat of the poor sucker in the exit row shows bad taste. Walking up to someone to say “Hey, that was once my seat. Give it back.” seems a poor course of action, and doing so by proxy is no better. On the other hand, they should have offered to gate check your bag as a matter of course.

  10. @WR If I volunteer for a bump & lose my first class seat when I’m not used… yes… I expect (and have always received) my original seat. Ben should have been returned to his original seat without needing to make a fuss. Next time, he will be far more reluctant to volunteer for a mere $500– a FC upgrade is worth more than that.

    I’ve heard these stories before & it’s one reason I haven’t volunteered in a while. $800 might be worth a gamble. $400 or $500… it’s an easy choice that I won’t volunteer if there’s a chance I’ll lose my FC seat & not receive anything exit a “oh we didn’t need you anyway, here’s a free drink coupon.”

  11. @Credit

    Back in the dark ages of air travel when I was on active duty in the Army I was involuntarily bumped a few times off Delta flights ostensibly because there were no volunteers and official military fares were the cheapest and therefore we were the first to go. No compensation, no meal voucher, nothing. Not sure how that works today – hopefully much better.

  12. @donna,

    Involuntary bump has pretty hefty compensation mandated by faa. And if you have high end card and get bumped from the last flight of the night I am sure the hotel is taken care (by the card) plus the mandated bump compensation.

  13. A couple years ago I had the experience of them not needing my seat after they had printed the voucher. They were sure they’d need the seat, but at the last minute, a flight to which a number of passengers were connecting got cancelled, so some of the passengers decided not to go. I got my seat back *and* got to keep the money.

  14. @peachfront A first class upgrade from LAX to PHX is worth more than $500? Yeah right. Keep dreaming. Just because it may sell for more than $500, I don’t think you will find a single person who will take the upgrade over a $500 voucher.

  15. @Ryan In theory I agree u can often find ppl with low expectations but I am not interested in following their lead or pretending poor service is acceptable. I want to learn how to get quality service during the oversale situation, I can get poor service without reading a blog KWIM? So anyone wanna reveal how to get GCs instead of the vouchers…?

  16. I lucked out once in that I had plenty of time when returning from a business trip, so I volunteered to be bumped to a later flight, and got a voucher for that. I then go to the gate for the later flight, which was also oversold, and they gave me a voucher too, and then rebooked me on my original flight (which hadn’t left yet.) I lost my window seat and had a middle seat instead, but for a <2hr flight and 2 vouchers, it was worth it to me.

  17. How is it ridiculous that he ask for his original seat back? Really the GA was at fault for giving his seat away prematurely. I’ve offered to bump countless times and this is the most basic of requests.

    With southwest they will frequently give you the voucher just for volunteering even if they don’t need you.

  18. I’ve taken three bumps this past year, and my wife and kids also took a bump at spring break time. All told, we managed to put $2,800 worth of Delta travel vouchers in our pockets in a 12 month period. I will say that by letting the Delta gate agent know that I was a Platinum Medallion member (if they didn’t notice), I was booked into first class on each of the rebooked flights after taking the bump. As far as offering to take a bump, I always ask them to not reassign my seat before knowing that they will need it for certain. By doing so, I haven’t yet lost an upgraded seat by merely being on the bump list when they didn’t end up needing me.

  19. Huh? You let them not clear you? You should know better that the bump.is never guaranteed until the plane door is closed. You have to let the process play out as if you are still going, upgrades and all. When I volunteer, I always stand within earshot of the desk to intervene when they begin to screw up or miscommunicate so I don’t lose my seat, upgrade chance, or place in line on the volunteer list.

  20. I don’t begin to enjoy an upgrade until the plane pulls away from the terminal. There’s no reason to celebrate (disappointment) too soon.

  21. I don’t think Lucky’s upgrade got rescinded, he simply wasn’t cleared and the #2 pax was issued the single remaining when processing agent was informed he was volunteering.

    Agents have a lot to do around dispatch and with the ruthless push for D0 by new management complicating upgrade+vol is unnecessary. Yield management has gotten much better and although relative overbooking levels haven’t increased they’re bumping fewer passengers.

  22. Last year I tried to volunteer for a bump – twice! – on one itinerary but there were literally no other planes that would get me where I needed to go in time. I was just about to burst that second time because the amount kept going up…$400, $600, $800…$1200!!! At that point I was doing the mental gymnastics in my head, “Maybe if I rent a car I can drive six hours…?” and “I wonder if there’s a train…?” In the end, they got the volunteers they needed and I was stuck flying a bumpy puddle-jumper so I could fulfill my obligation. Sigh!!!

    p.s. Writing this from The Private Room at Changi. Yes, it’s fabulous.

  23. “I really wasn’t looking forward to this itinerary, as it would be my first domestic redeye in a while. I do everything I can to avoid them, as I’m really getting too old for domestic redeyes.”
    Seriously?! You are 26 years old…

  24. @Christian @WR @Jackie whats wrong with you guys? the Agent was looking for volunteers, it was the agent fault not keeping his confirmed seats after canceling his First Class upgrade. Besides the guy who got his seat probably got the last seat on the plane, otherwise he could ended up in Ben’s middle seat anyways, or not getting on that flight at all.

    I had a similar issue in June, it was my first time and I didn’t know much about it because the only 3 times they were looking for one a couple of years ago, I couldn’t not do it on those flights.

    My advice (after getting burned my first time), tell them to keep your seat, and next time board the airplane, if they really need you, they will got and look for you because your voucher will be less or the same amount that an involuntary person will get, but they will get it in cash, not a credit.

  25. Lucky, am I to understand that you actually fly ECONOMY sometimes? That must be a step down for someone who’s sipped Krug in his private Etihad apartment before a refreshing onboard shower!

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