Bumping is the nemesis of the business traveler. Leisure travelers often have a certain amount of latitude as to when they need to arrive at a destination. Not so with the road warrior, who is a clockwork captive. While it is highly unlikely that any flier will be bumped from a flight for which they are holding a printed boarding pass, that pass, in reality, is no guarantee that you'll board your plane.
Amazing as it may sound, airlines have always had the ability — and not just that, but the authority — to overbook a flight. How is that possible, you ask? Simple: they know there always will be no-shows and so they factor that into their booking equation.
Because no-shows will never go away, and because every empty seat is a huge financial liability for cash-strapped carriers, the only way for the airlines to keep flights filled is to oversell. The airlines would rather not do that because it annoys fliers; but, on the other hand, the imperative to improve revenues in a down market is unforgiving.
So, as any business traveler can testify, planes have been fuller than ever before. This will likely continue to be a problem as the airlines continue to struggle to match the size of aircraft with typical demand on a given route. It doesn't leave much room for natural fluctuations.
That explains why the bumping rate is the highest it's been in 14 years — even though, according to The Wall Street Journal, the Department of Transportation last year doubled the penalties for denying seats to passengers with tickets.
No-shows aren't the only reason airlines chronically oversell. As Associated Press writer David Koenig points out, some passengers purchase a refundable ticket (an expensive practice) on more than one flight, but only use one. Or maybe the airline had to do a last-minute substitution of a smaller plane, i.e., one with fewer seats. It's just one more reason why more fliers are getting bumped.
There are, however, specific rights and responsibilities toward compensation that the airlines must follow. That's why the first step gate agents take on an oversold flight is to seek out volunteers who'll accept a later flight; naturally, this involves offering incentives, which only grow more lucrative as flight time nears and there are no takers. Forced bumping calls for paying passengers. But compensation for being bumped is often highly restrictive and fraught with difficulty.
Although those rules don't require an airline to pay for meals and a hotel for seriously bumped passengers, you can certainly try.
Also, while there's no rule requiring the airline to give you a refund for a long delay that results in you missing your meeting or event, again, you can certainly try. In fact, in the absence of a passenger's bill of rights, you have nothing to lose by asking, cajoling, and bargaining.
Still, any road warrior who has spent enough time at the gates of overbooked flights knows that there's no excuse to be bumped if you know what you're doing. First of all, each of the major carriers provides a means for online check-in, which gives you a leg up on leisure fliers.
So, if you are not using online travel sites to check-in for your flight, shame on you! Early check-in is your best line of defense against bumping. Some carriers are also testing out mobile check-in options — a high-tech alternative that will appeal to business travelers, not only because they're techies, but because anything that accelerates the check-in process gives them better odds against being bumped.
Road Warrior • Miami • www.us.amadeus.com