How to handle difficult bump situations…

A few weeks ago, my friend Pat emailed me about a bump situation she was in. She’s a 1K Million Miler with United, and on three occasions within the course of a few weeks was on oversold flights that took volunteers, but on none of those flights did they take her as a volunteer. The issue didn’t seem to be operational, which is a legitimate excuse. For example, sometimes they’ll need two volunteers, and they only have a total of three volunteers — you and a party of two. Even if it’s a 1K vs. two non-status passengers, they’re pretty justified in taking the couple. But in this case, it seemed like all the bumps she missed out on were oversights by the agent, who played the clueless card when approached about it after the fact.

She followed up with customer relations to clarify the policy, and their response included this:

the volunteer list is only offered at the gate on a first come first serve basis. Unfortunately, we do not use status in prioritizing this offer.

Rick, of the Frugal Travel Guy blog, seems to have had a similar issue, and also wrote a letter to customer relations asking about how bump lists are prioritized. The first response was BS, saying that the policy was an “internal process” and they can’t share the priority with him, but the second said a similar thing to what Pat’s email said.

You can certainly take what customer relations says at face value, but they know almost nothing about the operational side of the company. So I’m saying they’re 100% wrong. I’ve seen the bump list many times, as recently as a couple of weeks ago, and it is sorted by status. There’s no question about that. The thing that makes it slightly different than all the other priority lists is that the gate agents can pick and choose as they’d like, for good reason. When it comes to standby, upgrades, etc., the priority is determined by the computer, and it typically factors everything in, such as boarding priority, whether a passenger was disserviced, etc. Figuring out who to bump can take a bit more brainpower in some cases, because you have to figure out how they can be rerouted, do they have checked bags, would the airline need to pay for a hotel for the passenger, etc.

So first, let’s quickly discuss a few general tips for being bumped on United. First of all, get on the list and get on it often. When you first get to the airport or Red Carpet Club, add yourself to the list, assuming the flight looks full. I’m not the type of person that always adds myself to the list on a flight that has 100 empty seats. Typically the agent will say that it’s not looking oversold by that much (if it is at all), but just nicely ask if the agent wouldn’t mind adding you to the list anyway. This should cause a “United Customer Commitment” card to be printed out. Except for at the gate, don’t be discouraged when agents say “oh, the flight’s not over by that much.” Chances are it is.

Anyway, if I think it honestly looks like the flight will be oversold, I get to the gate an hour early. I know it seems early, but I recall two occasions where I had a bump “in the bag,” but the agents were super proactive and had already processed the bumps for passengers when I got to the gate 45 minutes before departure.

As soon as I get to the gate I give the gate agent a big smile and just ask if there’s any chance they’ll need volunteers. The big smile is key. Not so sound corny, but you’re starting your relationship with the gate agent. They have a lot of fine folks to choose from, so make sure they have a reason to choose you. If they say it looks like they might need volunteers, just say “great, I’ll be waiting right over there. I’m really flexible, and can fly whenever.” Then I always stand far enough from the podium so that the agent doesn’t feel like I’m stalking them, but close enough so I can hear what’s going on and they know I’m serious about getting bumped. ­čśë

So that’s probably usually about 10-15 feet away. Stand there and look at the agent in a non-obtrusive way. If they say they probably won’t need volunteers, just say “okay, thanks, if that changes please let me know, I’m on the list.”

Just following those easy steps has always meant I’ve been the first person to be processed for bumps, and that’s over the course of dozens after dozens of bumps.

But that doesn’t answer the tough question Pat and Rick have faced. What do you do when you see them page other passengers and it’s clear that they’re processing them, yet you should be the first one processed (theoretically)? Do you run up to them and say “stop, but I’m a 1K!” or do you watch it happen. Probably neither. In that situation I would probably inch my way closer to the podium immediately and ask how it’s looking. Hopefully they’ll catch their mistake and take care of you. You can throw in a comment like “oh, I thought the volunteer list was sorted by status,” but other than that it won’t serve much of a purpose. The gate agent won’t “un-volunteer” other passengers, and at the same time won’t take you just because. They’ll come up with an excuse.

So that’s why you should always get to the gate early, be nice to the gate agent and try to build a relationship with them (however small it might be), and then hopefully get bumped without problems. Beyond that, though, there’s probably not a whole lot that can save you. But when you get into a situation like Pat’s, I’m not sure if there’s anything that can save that bump!

Filed Under: Advice, United
  1. Its kind of amusing that I have been in so many bump situations but it always have been next day flights,last being this Monday. Damn!! .

    Lucky , normally I have noticed them offering travel voucher, can a person ask for money? Does these vouchers have restrictions?


  2. I had a nasty bump situation in Anchorage a few weeks ago. My flight was already “sold out” (Y0F0), and the addition of 1K/GS protected on it from an earlier cancellation led to a solid over-sell situation.

    I was at the gate early, and politely asked about volunteers, and was informed that none would be needed. I camped out in a seat near the gate — primarily for the power plug — but hear the same agent tell another employee how she’s going to have to IDB at least a dozen people, but “it’s easier than dealing with volunteers”. Ug.

  3. @ dracs — For VDBs United’s only form of domestic compensation right now is $400 in travel credits. They’re basically good as cash for booking any United tickets and are valid for a year. They can even cover taxes.

    @ Eric — OUCH! That was ex-ANC? Those are contracted employees, so I’m guessing they had absolutely no clue what they were doing.

  4. I hadn’t had one VDB in two years on CO as a CO Gold, but flying through ORD this weekend on UA, my friend and I got $400 each and the terrible inconvenience of a flight less than an hour later.

  5. The customer commitment actually explicitly states that United will look for VDBs before they have to IDB anyone!

  6. In the past week, I got on the VDB list for four flights, which were oversold by two or five. However, all the flights departed as full without taking any volunteers. When I checked in at airport for two of the flights, I asked the counter agent to add me to the VDB list, she told me: “We are oversold by two, but I don’t think we will need any volunteer. We will make it even.” It’s really difficult for me to get bumps recently, although with so many full flights and as 1K. UA is really good at capacity management now.

  7. I had a situation in RIC last winter where the agent put me and another guy on the list. She ended up needing only 1, and started to process him saying he was first on the list. I said, ‘uh isn’t the VDB list sorted by status?’. She quickly corrected herself, told him to board, and gave me the DBC. He sort of gave me the evil eye!

    The agent later said that they process so few VDB’s that she was out of the practice, but agreed that 1K’s should be handled first.

    I’m used to being told that I’m #1 on the list. The last time I was ‘out-bumped’ was back in my 1P days — the agent needed 1 VDB on DEN-COS. I asked her to sort the list by status — she said she did, and that the guy she was taking was a 1K MM. I quietly sulked into my seat…..

  8. The customer commitment actually explicitly states that United will look for VDBs before they have to IDB anyone!

    Customer commitment aside, it is clinically insane for any carrier to incur the ill will of pax by IDBing them — the sort of experience that leaves many customers angry and resentful over the long term — when there are willing victims happy to be paid off in exchange for a small schedule delay.

  9. It’s not only insane from a customer-goodwill perspective to IDB when not absolutely necessary, but it doesn’t make sense from a financial perspective as well. If you IDB someone, they get real cash compensation, whereas VDBs receive free tickets or travel credits, depending on the airline’s offer.

    Now it’s theoretically possible a recipient of free travel will use that travel in place of a trip he would have bought anyway, and the airline loses cash. But it’s also possible the volunteer will use the free travel for seats that otherwise would have flown empty, and the true marginal cost of that to the airline is the incremental fuel burn for one more passenger and the wholesale cost of refreshments, or, in other words, pretty much nothing.

    And if it’s the last flight of the day and you can find volunteers willing to take a compensation package without a hotel room, that’s even more actual cash saved.

    As a general rule, it’s better to take the (unknowable) possibility of losing a future sale over the certainty of having to pay out cash compensation. The only time it might be better to just go to IDBs is if you have passengers you can bump who paid a fare so low that the actual cash compensation is likely to be less than the loss from the VDB compensation even if you take a very liberal (that is, low) estimate of the VDB comp’s real cost to the airline.

    For example, a few years ago I few EWR-RIC/IAD-EWR for $76 round trip, with (IIRC) the actual fares being equal both ways. On the return flight, I was taking a mid-afternoon flight. If the flight had been oversold and CO could put me on the next flight (no hotel room)the IDB compensation would have been only $38 for a 2 hour delay or $76 for 2-4 hours, if I understand the rules correctly. $38 in real cash against $200 in flight credit is probably a good deal, although again it’s impossible to be certain.

  10. Actually Craig, there is NO good reason to IDB. IDB’s get reported to the DOT, VDB’s do not. Those stats matter FAR more to the airlines than the minor financial differences you highlight.

  11. @hoto13 – I understand what you’re saying, but I’m going to suggest that 90+% of the ticket-buying public wouldn’t know what the DOT stats were if their life depended on them. For that matter, we’re airline enthusiasts on here, and how many of us would ever base a purchase decision on IDB stats?

    So far there’s no real outcry over IDBs from the so-called “consumer advocates” of the world, and short of IDBs rising to a level where the industry hast to start worrying about draconian new regulations or DOT starts fining airlines for IDBs over a certain level (as opposed to fining them for not doing it properly, as Southwest found out), I don’t see them getting that horribly worked up over the stats.

    (And as I suggested, it’s pretty rare for the financial case to favour IDBs over VDBs anyway. I’m an accountant, and I’ll take a hypothetical revenue loss (VDB) over a real, measurable cash-out-the-door expense (IDB) any day of the week!)

  12. Craig — It’s not about whether public knows the DOT stats. It’s about how CNN / USA Today writes the article based on those stats! Lucky’s ‘best friend’ Chris Elliott loves to dredge this stuff up and then smear the legacies with it. And every year we get some sob story about one of the legacies IDBing people on Christmas Eve! I imagine that every airline PR Exec just holds their breath that it’s not their airline this year…..

    So while it shouldn’t matter to most people, I think that once the media fans the flames, it really contributes to the mass migration of leisure travelers to B6 and WN.

    A slightly OT point — I don’t think that UA’s on-time stats matter to most of us here. Yet UA is touting their #1 ranking all over the place! Why? Because the media promotes them with it.

  13. Does anyone know what flights are usually overbooked out of NYC (LGA, JFK) going to ORD or any other destination? What is the best day or times on United or any other airline to get a bump?

  14. @hobo13 – again, I hear what you’re saying, but how long does the average American retain information? Sure, the alleged journalist Chris Elliott and the like can write articles and readers will get all riled up for a few days, but a few days later when they’re buying tickets to Orlando to take the kids to visit the Mouse, are they going to remember Airline X had the highest IDB rate in the last report, when Airline X has a fare $100 lower than anyone else and they’re buying tickets for a family of four?

    Sure, UA’s touting the stats, but again, the only time anyone’s going to take a stat like that into account is if UA’s fares, fees, and schedules are as good as its competitors (what economist types call a “ceteris paribus” presumption) or better. Even then, most people would take other stats into account first, like on-time performance for the specific flights in question.

  15. Yup, they sort VDB lists by status. I still remember with glee when I jumped to the top of the a 5 person UA VDB list just because I was a MileagePlus member with no status as compared to non-MPs. Oh, and this was an Award ticket. I debated even putting my MP# into the reservation because I knew I wouldn’t earn miles anyway, but I finally did it just for hairy of it. Was I ever glad.

  16. Our entire group was bumped the first time I flew from Kathmandu to Lukla, Nepal (most dangerous commercial airport in the world) in October, 2008. We were supposed to be on the first flight of the morning but they bumped us to the second flight with no explanation. Incredibly, the first flight crashed and everyone but the pilot was killed. Since then I have never complained over any delays!!

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