Late Bags, Bumped Flight? Airlines Pay Up

The vast majority of those bumpings were voluntary -- instances in which gate agents asked people if they would pick a later flight in exchange for a credit to be used on a future trip.

Those credits -- and other perks such as upgrades and lounge access -- can vary widely, DiScala said.

"It all depends on how desperate the airline is to get the other paying customers on. There's a lot of flexibility and the gate agent has a lot of discretion," he said.

DiScala warns however, before you volunteer, ask that the gate agent doesn't give away your seat until they are positive they will need it. Otherwise, you might lose that exit-row seat or that cushy aisle location.

"It's obviously awesome for us, consumers," DiScala said.

Some question whether bumping is necessary at all.

"Overselling planes is just something airlines with modern reservation systems, mostly non-refundable tickets with $150-250 change fees and 24-hour online check-in just shouldn't have to do anymore, it's so 1995," Seaney said.

"At least one airline -- JetBlue -- doesn't oversell flights, so the argument that it is too painful to end the practice with fuller flights, especially this summer, doesn't hold much water," he said.

Seaney said most people are willing to take pre-boarding incentives to be voluntarily bumped, but that his guess is that most of them "don't know they are due a decent chunk cold hard cash at the gate if they get involuntarily bumped."

George Hobica, president of airfarewatchdog.com, also notes JetBlue's no-bumping policy.

"It makes me wonder why other airlines can't as well. I understand why airlines overbook flights, basically to increase their profits, but it leads to a miserable customer experience for thousands of travelers every year," Hobica said. "Perhaps there is a better solution, because even with higher fines, passengers still will miss important events, lose scarce vacation time, and suffer stress."

Airlines are allowed to sell more tickets than they have seats on the assumption that some passengers -- usually those with refundable tickets -- won't show up. Some travelers' groups, such as FlyersRights.org, want a limit on how many extra seats airlines can sell per flight. But industry insiders say that may be impractical, because no-show rates vary by route, day and even hour.

When a flight is overbooked, airlines must first ask for volunteers before involuntarily bumping ticket holders. While volunteers can get travel vouchers for future flights, people forced off flights must be paid in cash or check.

Sometimes the airlines abuse the rules. The Transportation Department recently fined Southwest Airlines $200,000 for shortcomings in its bumping practices.

In the first three months of this year, American Eagle, the regional affiliate of American Airlines, was most likely to bump passengers involuntarily. US Airways, Continental, ExpressJet and Southwest were next. For several years, JetBlue has been the least likely to bump -- it says it gives customers $1,000 if they're booted off a flight.

Last year, one in every 763 passengers got bumped from a flight, according to government figures.

Allison Danziger, director of TripAdvisor Flights said very few passengers are forced off a flight -- roughly 0.12 percent.

However, the new regulations could make airlines become more conservative in their overbooking policies, she said. That means the lowest-priced tickets might no longer be sold.

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