10 Tips for Negotiating a Lucrative Airline Bump

Apr 3, 2014

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Tuesday night, I was set to fly a non-stop American Airlines flight from Recife, Brazil to Miami on a business class award. While booking my ticket several weeks prior, I had noticed the flight was pretty packed, with coach almost full and only two business class seats left. This wasn’t too surprising, as this is the only non-stop flight on this route, and only operates four times a week; most other flights on the route require out-of-the-way connections via Sao Paulo or Brasilia.

I hadn’t been bumped in a while, but I was feeling hopeful for this flight. I knew, though, that they’d need to make the offer a pretty darn good one for me to forgo a non-stop flight on an international business class-equipped plane to route via another city and lose a day on the ground.

Ah, the consolations of American Airlines business class
The bump deal would have to be pretty good to get me to give up my business class seat.

Sure enough, when the check-in agent at the asked me if I would be willing to stay in Recife another night, I felt pretty confident that the flight – and most likely the business class cabin in particular – was oversold. This probably wasn’t an unusual occurrence, but the airline would certainly have wanted to make sure they took good care of a passenger confirmed in a premium cabin on a unique international route.

When I said I’d be open to the idea, she was thrilled and told me I could get a comped taxi and hotel room, then take a flight the next day for free. Unfortunately, this wasn’t gonna cut it: I already knew there wasn’t a non-stop flight available the next day. I’d originally considered making that my day of departure, but seeing that there wasn’t a non-stop, I chose instead to leave Fernando de Noronha a day earlier, catch the non-stop, and land in  Miami by 5:35am – without losing an entire day of productivity.

She must have seen my dubious expression, because without any prompting she said she’d also throw in a $500 voucher. Now this got me interested. The likelihood of being rebooked into a mileage-earning fare class plus potentially being routed via Sao Paulo on a nicer plane (with WiFi, to take the sting out of the daytime flight) began to become a real possibility. However, I wanted to know all of my options before getting into final negotiations, so I told her I had to make a phone call and check with my assistant before officially volunteering for a bump.

To find your best bump options, research itineraries with Expertflyer
To find your best bump options, research itineraries with ExpertFlyer

I loaded Expertflyer.com on my laptop so that I could see both seats and plane types, by using their Flight Availability feature. I found an an 11:30pm connecting flight from Recife (REC) to Sao Paulo (GRU) that would get me in at 2:20am, then a 10:10am TAM flight from GRU to Miami the next day. The REC-GRU leg would mean an all-economy plane for three hours, but I figured it would put me in a good position to negotiate for a nice mileage-and-voucher payday. I noticed the TAM flight was wide open in business class and there was one first class seat available, so I decided I’d go for this itinerary if I could get all of the following:

1. A good seat on REC-GRU. To me, this would have meant an exit row, bulkhead, or several seats blocked off.

2. First class on the TAM flight. Honestly, though, I would have taken business class if it had been the only option; in my opinion, TAM’s version of business on its 777-300ERs is still a better product than American’s angled lie-flats on the 757.

3. A cash/voucher amount of $500-$800. Cash is always better than a voucher, and this is usually the golden dollar range on international flights.

4. A hotel room in Sao Paulo to accommodate my late night arrival there.

I went back up to the agent with my plan and she agreed to bump me to $800 (her best and final offer) and got her manager’s approval to put me in TAM’s first class, which is supposed to be really nice!  She informed me that I’d have to proceed as normal, but in the event I was needed, she would protect me on the other flights; as the AA flight was only oversold by two, I would only be needed if there weren’t any no-shows.

Either way, though, I was happy: if I got home as planned I’d have a day to work, and if I did get the bump I felt like my compensation would be more highly worthwhile. After leaving the counter, I pulled up Expertflyer Flight Availablity and sure enough, the F1 on my Sao Paulo to Miami flight was now F0, meaning she actually did protect me in first class on TAM and not business. In my American Airlines app, my new flights showed after I scrolled past the original MIA-REC leg. Score!

April Fools!
But…I didn’t get bumped, after all
. I have to admit, I was a little disappointed. Despite the roundabout new schedule I would have been flying and an overnight in Sao Paulo, the chance to try out TAM’s first class and earn $800 in cash had made my mouth water. I didn’t feel too bad, though, since I would be getting home as planned in business class.

Or so I thought! After a two-hour delay due to mechanical issues, my original non-stop flight got cancelled. And at 2am with only 2 agents working at the airport, the line to get rebooked and a free hotel was probably 2 hours long.

Pandemonium in Recife after a 1:30am flight cancellation
Pandemonium in Recife after a 1:30am flight cancellation

So I called AA and rebooked a brand new saver level award via Sao Paulo and canceled my original award (in doing so I tacked on a February 2015 itinerary to Hawaii, for 50,000 miles all told – more to come on that in another post!), I had to shell out $250 for a hotel room in Recife, catch a three-hour flight to Sao Paulo in TAM economy class yesterday morning, wait through a 10-hour layover in Sao Paulo (where I actually got to hang out with good friends, so that became a positive thing), and at 11:30pm, finally settle into a business-class seat on a 777-200 (old plane) to Miami.

Farewell, Sao Paulo - it's been real (and long)
Farewell, Sao Paulo – it’s been real (and long)

If only I’d been green-lit for that original bump, it would have been the ultimate travel triumph: I would have avoided this cancellation ridiculousness and been been paid to get home earlier!

All disappointment aside, though, here are 10 tips for maximizing your own bump opportunity:

1. Go into the airport with a Plan B if your flight is oversold. A good, but not perfect indicator in Expertflyer that your flight is full of zeroes across the board in all fare classes, or Y 1/2/3.

2. Come up with an acceptable amount of compensation – but be reasonable. If you get too greedy, the airline can take other volunteers that require less. Some airlines  (like Delta) even have auction systems to identify volunteers who require the least compensation. However, in most outstations (the AA counter in Recife is staffed by subcontractors) they care less about compensation limits and more about getting the flight out on time – and without any angry passengers who get involuntarily bumped.

3. Befriend the agent! Push them for max compensation, but smile a lot and reiterate that you want to make their job as easy as possible. If they like you, they can do a lot for you. This goes for pretty much every aspect of travel (and life in general).

4. Come up with your own routing options by learning how to use Expertflyer. Agents have a lot of flexibility and can book you in other classes of service and via quirky routing – allowing you to maximize mileage!

5. It never hurts to ask. You don’t need to be a hardcore litigator to get what you want. Simply ask for what you think is more than sufficient and see where you land. I can’t imagine how many people take bumps having no idea they can ask for a higher class of service on the next flight. It’s no skin off an airline employee’s back and you’ll often get the bonus for premium classes of service when rebooked – so always try!

6. Don’t check luggage, if possible. Checked bags add another level of complexity to rerouting you – especially if they need volunteers last minute and they don’t have time to offload bags. Some airlines won’t take off with bags if the passenger isn’t on the flight, so you could lose the edge if you’ve got a bag in the belly of the plane and they need last-minute volunteers.

7. Play it cool. If they sense that you’re overeager, they may be less forthcoming with compensation. Let them know your time is valuable and you paid extra for that flight for the convenience, airplane type, etc. – whatever means the most to you. Give them good reason to compensate you well.

8. Once you’ve agreed on your compensation amount, ask for cash instead of a voucher. Airlines will default to vouchers, but some may be willing to give cash or checks, instead. Especially in Europe where flight bumping regulations and passengers rights laws are strong, they may be more than happy to give you cash. Remember that cash is much more valuable than airline vouchers, which can expire and come with restrictions. Once again, see number 5!

9. Be at the gate before boarding time. If you show up last minute you may miss the call for volunteers.

10. Protect yourself in case it falls through. Hold onto your original boarding pass with your seat assignment, and make sure it’s acknowledged by the desk agent; you don’t want the airline to give your seat away to another passenger until you’re fully rebooked on a new flight. I know I would never volunteer to get bumped if I thought I’d risk losing my premium seat and ending up in a middle seat at the last minute.

Nothing live live-tweeting and bump - and missing out! Thanks to all of you who were cheering me on!
Nothing like live-tweeting a possible bump – and missing out! Thanks to all of you who were cheering me on

Despite the fact that I didn’t get chosen for a bump this time around, I’m happy with my decision to volunteer and wanted to share my tips.  Thanks to all of you on Twitter who were so positive about my near-bump experience – you really made my night! To follow along with realtime updates of my travels, always remember to follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Feel free to share your stories of airline bump compensation with fellow TPG readers in the comments so we can all know what’s being given out by different airlines these days.

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