It was a stormy night outside the Continental Express commuter airline lounge at Newark Airport.
Inside, hundreds of disgruntled and delayed passengers slumped in pseudo-leather seats waiting for a dozen or more flights. Cellphones jangled; children ran amok; tired business people tapped on laptops.
Finally, a flight for Rochester was ready to board. In fact, it was too ready. It was way overbooked.
"May I have your attention in the boarding area. We are looking for a few volunteers. We will offer a voucher of $250 good for travel anywhere in the U.S., plus hotel and meal vouchers to anyone willing to stay overnight and take the first flight out to Rochester in the morning," a Continental Express gate attendant announced at 8:03 p.m. There were no takers.
At 8:05 p.m. the deal was sweetened to $350.
At 8:15 p.m., the attendant did her best Monty Hall let's-make-a-deal imitation and offered $400, plus the other perks, but no joy.
At 8:18 p.m. she practically pleaded a deal for $450. A party of six women shouted "Bingo!" and headed to the desk.
Last year, more than 1 million passengers volunteered to be bumped by the 10 leading air carriers, and 56,000 were bumped off a flight non-voluntarily.
If you've got the time, the nerves and the flexibility, getting bumped is something you can do for fun and profit.
First off, you'll have to do some research. You want to figure out which are the busiest routes -- say northern climes to major Florida cities during the winter -- and what days they fly from your local airport. Then, the next time you have to make the same trip, book well in advance on a flight likely to be overbooked (you can even ask your travel agent or an airline agent to check the flight to see if it's oversold), and build in extra travel time in your plans.
Likely overbooked flights include those scheduled before and after holidays, afternoons and early evening flights on Fridays and Sundays, non-stops to the opposite coast or a distant domestic destination and frequent business routes, including Chicago, Washington, Dallas and Boston. The nature of an overloaded air travel system means the last flight of the day likely will be oversold. Also, if you must stay overnight before getting the next available flight to your destination, the airline is required to provide hotel and meal vouchers.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's "Fly Rights, A Consumer Guide to Air Travel" at www.dot.gov/airconsumer/flyrights.htm suggests getting answers to the following questions before volunteering to be bumped:
"When is the next flight on which the airline can confirm your seat?" The alternate flight may be just as acceptable to you. On the other hand, if the airline offers to put you on standby on another flight that's full, you could be stranded.
"Will the airline provide other amenities such as free meals, a hotel room, phone calls or ground transportation?" If not, you might have to spend the money they offer you on food or lodging while you wait for the next flight.
"DOT has not said how much the airline has to give volunteers," the Web site says. "This means carriers may negotiate with their passengers for a mutually acceptable amount of money -- or maybe a free trip or other benefits. Airlines give employees guidelines for bargaining with passengers, and they may select those volunteers willing to sell back their reservations for the lowest price. If the airline offers you a free ticket, ask about restrictions. How long is the ticket good for? Is it 'blacked out' during holiday periods when you might want to use it? Can it be used for international flights? Most importantly, can you make a reservation, and if so, how far before departure are you permitted to make it?"
TAKE THE VOUCHER AND FLY
The DOT also has rules for people who are bumped involuntarily. Those rules are outlined at the same Web site and in a 58-page pocket-size booklet, which can be bought for $1.75 (including postage) from the Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, CO 81009. Be sure to include your name and address.
People willing to be bumped for the free voucher but still hoping to get to their destination the same day should bring information about other flights scheduled from the same airport. For example, if you agreed to be bumped from an American flight from Hartford to Miami, you can grab the voucher and then ask that American book you on the next available flight, on American or another airline. The airline is required to honor that request if a flight is available but probably won't volunteer the information.
ADVICE FROM FLY FREE
Vicki Mills, at Fly Free, Stay Cheap Web site, www.fly-free.com, tells the story about a flight her husband was taking to Seattle.
"He heard them [the airline] asking for volunteers, so he offered his seat. When he went to get his voucher of $300, it turned out that to guarantee him on the next flight, they had to upgrade him to business class, if that weren't enough good fortune, it turned out that the next flight was leaving 10 minutes later and he actually arrived in Seattle before his original flight. It just goes to show, with a little sense of adventure you never know what good things are in store for you," Mills explains in a section of the Web site about the advantages of being bumped.
The rules, as outlined by the DOT, have been under review since April. The compensation amounts have not changed since they were set in 1978:
"If the airline can arrange alternate transportation scheduled to arrive at the passenger's destination within two hours of the planned arrival time of oversold flight -- or four hours on international flights -- the compensation is the amount of the fare to the passenger's destination with a $200 maximum. If the airline cannot meet the two- or four-hour deadline, the amount of compensation doubles, with a $400 maximum," according to the DOT.
The DOT is also reviewing whether the rules should be extended to include flights that are currently excluded -- charters, planes with 60 seats or less or inbound flights to the United States.
Passenger rights groups are particularly interested in compensation since the percentage of passengers bumped continues to increase. The DOT's Air Travel Consumer Report for 2000 found that 1.04 per 10,000 passengers was bumped last year, up from the rate of 0.88 in 1999.
Bill Mosley, a spokesman for the DOT, said there is no deadline for the DOT's review, although the staff has been asked to make its recommendations in a timely manner.