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Today’s post comes courtesy of Richard Kerr.  You may have seen Rich’s work over at The Points Guy, or the Travel Hacking 101 Facebook group (10,000 members strong!).  He is also a frequent visitor to the Points With a Crew Miles and Points Slack channel and has also spoken twice at Family Travel for Real Life — PWaC

Would you book a flight with the hopes you get bumped and receive airline compensation? I believe it’s possible to strategically plan and book a series of flights over the course of 3-5 days in the hopes of earning enough voluntary bumps to turn a profit in airline vouchers. By perfecting a bump run strategy, this practice could be routinely repeated with a common successful outcome of making a profit from a flying.

Overbooked Flight Basics

Airlines are routinely overbooking flights to compensate for the normal occurrence of ‘no-show’ travelers. Many people rebook their original itinerary or miss their original flights. The problem for the airlines is when everyone shows up, leaving too many bodies and not enough seats. To avoid having passengers stranded by airlines without recourse, the trusty folks over at the US Department of Transportation gave us a few passenger rights.

When a flight is oversold, the USDOT requires airlines to first ask for voluntary bumps in exchange for airline compensation, and if that doesn’t work, airlines can involuntarily bump you from your overbooked flight. If this happens the airline must pay you compensation if alternative transportation methods, including connections, do not get you to your final destination within one hour of your originally scheduled arrival time. Head to the USDOT Consumer Guide to Air Travel website to read all the rules and flight compensation amounts.

bump run hypothesis

The fine people of the USDOT mandate voluntary bump opportunities.

With the basics covered, let’s look at how you can pick as many flights as possible in a short time frame which you believe will require voluntary bumps. You then have to do everything you can to make sure you’re the one who will get the bump.

The Overbooking Planning

By deciphering overbooking patterns from studying load factors with ExpertFlyer, revenue fares, and even award space (or the lack thereof), it is often easy to pick out routes which are commonly oversold. Day of the week and departure times should also carefully be considered. Here are the factors I would study when planning a bump run:

  1. Load Factor — by checking ExpertFlyer it’s easy to study which flights routinely have little no availability and make notes of such occurrences. Experience can also tell you a lot here. I lived in Seattle for three years and routinely flew Delta nonstop home to Atlanta. SEA-ATL flights are always overbooked on Delta!
  2. Hub to Hub routes — legacy airlines work from the spoke-hub distribution model where regional jets feed the hubs which then connect to other hubs, and from there other spokes. If you look at hub to hub routes, the flights are always full. Examples would be IAH-ORD for United, ATL-MSP for Delta, DFW-LAX for American are examples.
  3. Once Daily Flights — these could be a blessing or a curse for a potential bump run. There is a reason some flights only operate once a day and that is because of low demand. On the flip side, if there is only one flight, everyone needs to take it. Once a day flights during ski season to destinations like Aspen and Vail stick out in my mind as potentially lucrative for a bump.
  4. Destination Factor — because you have to plan your flights far enough apart in case you do get bumped and have to catch a later flight, I would be looking to fly to a city I at least had some vague interest to see or held a novelty for me to visit. This gives you something to kill the time in between an unsuccessful bump and your next attempt.
  5. Cost — It’d be great to wait until the very last minute to book an overbooked flight you see with only one seat left, but that would be cost prohibitive, making the risk of not accruing an airline voucher to great to your bottom line. You have to weigh the best routes, at the busiest times to fly, which also routinely are the most expensive.
Looking on Fridays, it is easy to see the shuttle flights between EWR and ORD routinely have little availability.

Looking on Fridays, it is easy to see the shuttle flights between EWR and ORD routinely have little availability.

The Constraints

  1. Time — Trying to get as many bump opportunities in a short period of time is difficult to plan. You have to leave enough time before your next planned bump opportunity in case you’re successful in a previous bump attempt. If you’re not successful and take the originally booked flight, you could have a long wait until your next planned bump attempt. This all makes for inefficient time use on limited vacation days for any working professional.
  2. Bidding Systems — Kiosks at check-in now ask passengers on oversold flights for the minimum airline compensation they would take in order to be bumped from the flight. This takes away some of the art form of waiting at the gate counter and knowing what the current offer stands at.
  3. Weather/IRROPS — In the case of weather or air traffic control causing delays, cancelations, or the airport entering into IRROPS (irregular operations), all bets are off on your time schedule and what, if any, airline compensation which is offered. This could quickly throw your entire plan out of whack. On the bright side, if you find yourself on one of the few operating or on-time flights, it is most likely to be oversold and, voila, you could end up with a “relief bump”.
  4. Luck — this is going to be your most difficult and uncontrollable aspect of a potential bump run. The stars may not align, even with the most experienced aviation industry expert planning a bump run.
bad weather can throw your bump run out of whack

Bad weather and IRROPS could quickly cause mayhem with your bump run.

Possible Outcomes of the Bump Run Hypothesis

For a novice planning a bump run, I would count getting bumped once as a successful outcome. If you wait long enough for the compensation for flight delays to increase, this alone could make your run profitable. For an experienced flyer with detailed knowledge, getting bumped more than two-thirds of the time would be a great success. I’ve seen vouchers offered between $400-$1200 for flights as long as 9 hours and as short as an hour.

(SEE ALSO: Would you take $1000 for a 9 hour delay?)

Perhaps it is the entire unknown of such a bump run which would make it all the more fun.

To increase your chances of being selected as the bump recipient, check in to a flight early, be the first to politely approach a gate agent and let him/her know you are a volunteer, and don’t check a bag.

Who is going to be the first to plan and execute a bump run? What factors would you take into consideration?

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