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“Voluntary Denied Boarding” is the official term for “bumping” a passenger off a flight. It’s the dreaded or glorious, depending on your plans, moment when an airline asks for volunteers to skip their flight. Airlines attempt to make it worthwhile to delay your plans by offering you gift cards, vouchers, etc – whatever it takes. Offers go as high as $10,000 for taking a later flight, though that’s a one-time outlier. Offers go as low as having police drag you off a plane, bloody and unconscious; that too is rare.
After the “Dao incident” airlines supposedly increased passenger compensation for bumps, looking to avoid that kind of bad publicity. I have no information on what a “standard” offer is, but in my experience I generally hear gate agents start offering ~$600 in vouchers and move up from there. Even a cursory read of a Flyertalk forum thread shows a number of $1,000+ bumps accepted, including domestic flights. While I’m sure airlines do the math on compensation vs. revenue, I’m also sure they’d like to get you to move for the least money possible.
Early Bump Offers
Recently, airlines started sending emails to customers on overbooked flights allowing them to bid for bump vouchers. This is couched as a chance to lock-in compensation – someone’s getting bumped, it might as well be you. Delta even offers a “helpful tip” that lowest offers are accepted first (duh).
Notice anything about the dollar amounts? Those seem kind of low, don’t they? Why would an airline ask you privately to accept an offer instead of broadcasting it at the gate? Well, to paraphrase an old Simpsons episode, they didn’t get rich by writing a lot of checks.
The Psychology of Early Bump Offers
There are several tactics at work here, all of which are decidedly to the airline’s advantage and not yours. First, let’s start with those low figures. Even for domestic flights, $200 bumps offers aren’t common at the gate. And $500 as the highest offer is lower than what I’ve heard as a starting bid at an airport. This is called anchoring: providing your negotiating opponent a cheaper starting point or range of options than you are actually willing to accept. Once $200 – $500 is in your mind, it’s harder to consider $1,000 as a “reasonable” expectation. After all, you know Delta is willing to offer $200; it’s right there in the email. Would they give you $2,000? Would you dare even ask?
That leads to tactic number two: information asymmetry. That’s a fancy term for “they know more than you do.” What are they willing to offer customers? What are other customers willing to accept? How effective have other early offers like this been in the past? The airline knows the answers to these questions; you don’t. At the gate, you can gauge the reaction of other fliers to escalating offers. With an early bump offer, all you know is what they tell you.
That leads to the third and most powerful tactic used against you: negotiating against yourself. You don’t know what the airline might offer you, and you don’t know what other customers will accept. All you know is “$200 – $500” and that Delta picks low bids. How low? Surely $200 guarantees you that much, right? And is $500 greedy? Maybe you should stick to a middle ground $300 – your odds are good right there, surely.
Notice who you’re arguing with – yourself. At that point all Delta has to do is sit back and wait for you to sell yourself short. And I guarantee that you will accept less than the airline would offer every single time. Not just 99% of the time, but 100% “death and taxes” level always locked-in. I say that with absolute certainty. Here’s why.
Don’t Take The Early Bump Offer
All passengers have collective power at the gate from receiving the same offer under the airline’s deadline. Customers can gauge each other’s attitudes and, gasp, can actually work together to elicit better offers. At least at the airport you are bidding against other customers and not your own imagination. Plus, that flight must leave on time, and the airline will do anything to make that happen. So agents announce offers that escalate until enough are accepted. That doesn’t happen in an emailed early bump offer.
Any early bump offer you accept will be less than the airline will offer when under duress. As departure time approaches offers don’t go down. They will make that flight leave, and if 5 people get $5,000 to make that happen so be it. Even if they offer you $5,000 in the email, they would offer more than that at the gate. There will never be a time when an airline email contains the highest possible offer. First, they couldn’t raise the offer later at the gate if not enough customers accept the email offer. So by definition there will always be a better offer (up to the maximum) at the gate. And second…why pay more? You’ll never see a $5,000 offer in an early bump offer, but, you might (rarely) see that at an airport.
There’s a fourth tactic they use with an early bump offer, that works at the airport. And you must go to the airport at your original time, as your itinerary doesn’t change until you review options at the gate. Say you accepted their $200 offer, but at the airport you realize they will route you through 5 cities.You don’t have to accept the previously accepted offer. But that’s reneging on your word, and who would do a shady thing like that? I’ll tell you who expects you not to: the airline. They expect you to take a deal at the targeted price, even if they change itineraries out of your favor.
Unless you absolutely must get bumped and will take what you can get you should never accept an early offer. And if you do you should be willing to decline it at the airport. If you accept the offer, you’re taking money out of your pocket and giving it to the airline. Again, you are negotiating with little to no information on early bump offers. At the gate you are negotiating with much better information, and a potential advantage over the airline. If you lose out to other customers through the email or at the gate, possible no matter what offer you pick in an email, you at least had a better chance and more knowledge at the airport.
Now, the question is: will enough customers know that this is an easily avoidable trick to get them to sell themselves out? That answer is who knows. Well, the real answer is only the airline knows right now; that’s part of the problem. In the future we can change that. And, by writing this, I am hoping to spread that message to every traveler I can.