The U.S. Transportation Department, never known for coining zippy nicknames, calls them passengers denied boarding. But we know them as "bumpees." Some travelers strive to be bumped, yearning for the perks that airlines offer them. But others, about 4,800 a month, have "bumpee" status thrust upon them.
Over the past few years, as travel has boomed and this country's largest airlines have found themselves with fuller flights, the risk (or hope) of being bumped has seemed to loom larger. Noting that, budget-travel guru Tom Parsons in November treated readers of his Best Fares magazine to several tips on the inexact art of getting bumped in order to gain perks for future flights.
In fact, your odds of being bumped these days are higher than they were in 1992, when the airlines were losing billions and desperate to fill their seats. But the same sophisticated computer number-crunching that helps airlines juggle prices so confoundedly also has permitted carriers to limit increases in the number of oversold flights.
many consumers continue to reserve seats and not use them -- especially business travelers on shuttle flights, just to keep their options open. If you're flying on expensive unrestricted tickets, as many business travelers do, there's no penalty for not showing. Hence, says an American Airlines spokesman, no-show rates of 10 percent to 15 percent are common. But the airlines' "yield management" formulas now allow them to predict no-shows with such accuracy that in the first nine months of 1997, Transportation Department records show, just 1.16 per 10,000 passengers on major carriers were involuntarily bumped.
Over the first nine months of last year, Continental Airlines logged the lowest rate of involuntary bumps among major carriers -- just 0.11 per 10,000 passengers boarded. Runners-up were United (0.50), Northwest (0.61), American (0.72), US Airways (0.96) and Delta (1.69). Bringing up the rear: America West (2.10), Southwest (2.36) and Alaska (2.55).
Who decides what you get for being bumped? If it's involuntary, airlines follow federal rules: Generally, you get nothing if your arrival is delayed less than an hour. If you're delayed one to two hours on a domestic flight (one to four hours on an international flight), the airline must pay you 100 percent of the cost of the disrupted flight segment, up to $200. If the bumping causes a delay of more than two hours on a domestic flight or four hours on an international flight, the mandated amount is 200 percent, up to $400. If you're bumped voluntarily, the airline decides what it wants to offer. On flights with fewer than 61 seats, no compensation is required.
Most travelers, of course, want to know how to avoid being bumped. Check in early at the gate, especially if the plane is expected to be heavily booked. If you check in less than 20 minutes before your scheduled departure time, the airline generally is free to bump you without compensation.
But perhaps you have a little travel time to spare, and you could use a few dollars or a ticket. Then your question may be, "How can I get bumped?"
Mr. Parsons reports that he was happily bumped at least 11 times in 1997, "and every time I walked away with a free round-trip ticket (sometimes for first-class travel), a free phone call and a free meal."
His strategy: Check in early (about 90 minutes ahead of departure time), ask if the flight is oversold, and if they'll be seeking bump volunteers. And hope it's a hot day. Higher temperatures, Mr. Parson explains, give planes less lift on takeoff, and that sometimes forces carriers to limit total passenger weight.