With the recent string of bad press that a lot of airlines are getting lately because of bad judgment calls by their staff, they are trying hard to make the skies friendly again. One incident in particular really sparked some change from United.
That incident was, of course, none other than the forceful removal of Dr. David Dao from an oversold flight. Dao suffered facial injuries and a concussion as a result of the manhandling. Shortly thereafter, United overhauled their policy for dealing with oversold flights which included increasing the amount of compensation to volunteers for giving up their seat. It's because of this policy change that I found myself in a very interesting situation this week.
On Monday afternoon, I was slated to fly from Newark to Tampa. As with all of my flights this summer (thanks incessant summer storms!), it was delayed by about two hours. Finally the time comes to start boarding and those needing extra assistance are invited to get on the plane. A few minutes after they've boarded, the gate agent announces that they are changing the aircraft and the gate. As you can imagine, the grumbling from irate passengers starts up. I secretly get such a kick out of these people who shout their tough guy lines over the crowd to the gate agents as if the agents are the ones who just decide "you know what? I'm going to screw up everyone's afternoon and I'm going to change the gate. And I'll up the ante too by changing the plane!" Anyway, I digress...
With the plane change comes a brand new seat configuration causing further angst amongst the passengers. We finally begin boarding and everyone is hesitantly walking up to the boarding pass scanner which will determine whether or not your seat has been changed based on the beep it emits (essentially the modern day thumbs up or down from the emperor for us road warriors). I'm spared the seat change and head to my spot in the second row of economy.
The pilot comes on the PA and announces that the plane we just got on does not have enough fuel to get to Florida and we are waiting for them to come bring us some more. Further grumbling ensues...
Suddenly, the gate agent comes on the plane and announces that the flight is oversold and they are looking for a volunteer to give up their seat in exchange for, get this, a $10,000 travel credit and a seat on the next flight which was in three hours. It's evident that everyone is startled by this amount. The agent coyly asks "who is interested?" and everyone shoots their hands in the air. She says that the first person to come up gets it and with that, I start to undo my seatbelt but the woman in the bulkhead seat in front of me bolts up and races towards the front. Damn. I never take these offers, but the best one I've ever seen is $1,000 and a first class ticket on one of my flights to Orlando. For me, the day was just a travel day, so I could have been flexible with my flights for once, but I missed out.
From somewhere nearby, someone yells "how many people do you need?" to which she replies "5 more people!" In an instant, I was up out of my seat, opening the latch on the overhead bin, grabbing my suitcase and beelining it to the front of the plane. It felt like running to a finish line because she looks at me and says "ok, you got it" and begins to count off the additional people running up.
We get off the plane and they are still looking for two more volunteers, making that a total of SEVEN people. $70,000 being handed out. Two guys who had been sitting in first class come out of the jet bridge door and make their way over to us with a triumphant look on their face.
I still can't believe my luck. Was this really happening? It has to be used in a year, so where will I go?? My mind is absolutely buzzing. Three agents ask us to give them about 30 minutes to process the paperwork and we take a seat. Unfortunately for the two guys from first class, they didn't need seven anymore and asked them to get back on the plane. I ended up running into one of those guys the following day at the airport in Tampa and he told me that they ended up giving them each $500 in travel credit as a gesture of good will which I thought was pretty generous.
After 30 minutes, they procured the credit, I signed my paperwork, and got my ticket for the later flight. They weren't able to accommodate me on the next flight as announced, so I got a ticket on the last flight of the day and ended up going standby on the one originally promised. I headed back to the United Club and had a glass of prosecco to celebrate my good luck. Truly, that was all it was: luck. I have read articles on people receiving this same amount of compensation for a bad experience or an unfortunate situation, however I had neither of these.
Of course, United and other airlines aren't handing out this kind of dollar amount every day, however there are some things you can do to put yourself in a good position to take them up on these offers.
Assess Your Day
Do you have the flexibility in your day to potentially go later or even the following day? Knowing how flexible you can be is the first step. If you have a client dinner that evening at 7pm and it's already 3pm, forget it.
Know What Your Options Are
Are there more flights to your destination later that day? What does the seat availability look like on those flights? Figuring out your new potential routing and scheduling will help you determine if you are able to make it work and help you to speak intelligently to the gate agent who is rebooking you.
Talk to the Gate Agent
The most popular way this compensation is offered is due to oversold flights. Every airline does it (hotels do it too!). They sell more tickets than they have seats in the hopes that someone will miss their connection, change their itinerary, or cancel their seat all together.
Even if the seat map shows available seats, it could still be an oversold situation. Simply ask the gate agent flat out "is this flight oversold?" They will tell you yes or no, but won't be able to tell you what the offer is at that time. However, simply knowing if it's oversold or not will help you to be on your toes and make a decision ahead of time about what you would take and what you wouldn't take for compensation. When they ask for volunteers, you will have already thought this through rather than having to make a game time decision. A moment's hesitation could cost you!