People have a clever way of making money off airlines to essentially travel for free—and it’s all about looking for an overbooked flight



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It could be a scene from an auction house: A Delta flight from Boston to Rome in September was so overbooked that a flight attendant pleaded with passengers and offered them thousands of dollars and a hotel room to give up their seats in exchange for a voucher and a later flight.

“Come on guys, $3,500, can somebody take one for the team?” the flight attendant said in a video captured on TikTok. “We’ll get you a hotel if you guys show up for us.”

According to the account that posted the video, 13 passengers received between $2,000 and $4,000 to voluntarily surrender their tickets and end up in Rome on a later flight hours later.

It’s not just a lucky few who get to take advantage of the airline’s overbooked flight vouchers. From January to March 2024, 23,699 Delta passengers have volunteered to “take one for the team” in exchange for vouchers and travel perks. A common practice to ensure full flights, airlines often overbook passengers at the risk of shuffling them around and managing inconveniences. Per rules from the Department of Transportation (DOT), airlines must compensate passengers 200% of the one-way ticket cost for a flight delayed up to two hours, and 400% for a flight delayed more than that—a sum that can amount to up to $1,550. Airlines must give passengers compensation on the same day as the bumping incident.

But amid post-pandemic revenge travel and labor shortages that have delayed and canceled record numbers of flights, airlines have been willing to shell out more perks to bump travelers from oversold flights, anything from pizza slices for delayed passengers to $10,000 in cash. As the airline industry notches record travel days in the heat of July, airline passengers are clamoring for good deals—and the secret is out on how airlines will dish them.

“My job as a content creator is to share hacks that people really like,” full-time finance content creator Sam Jarman told Fortune. “I need to listen to my audience and my audience loves anything related to flight, tips, hacks.”

Getting booted from flights was a boon to Jarman in his years before having kids. Getting paid to wait a couple hours was a no-brainer for him, and he believes the next generation of Gen Z and millennial travelers—who are seeking experiences over luxury goods—are good candidates for taking advantage of the travel perks that booking an oversold flight can offer.

“Getting a flight voucher is almost like getting cash compensation, in my mind,” Jarman said.

Airlines are booked, busy, and bruised

Getting bumped off a flight wasn’t always considered an airline perk. Before social media became an accepted educational tool for financial literacy, it was a means of documenting airline nightmares. In 2017, a United Airlines passenger was dragged off an overbooked flight from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky. Multiple passengers captured the scene of a security officer grappling the passenger—who had a tangled shirt and askew glasses as he was dragged down the plane aisle—on cellphone cameras and posted videos on Twitter. 

“It felt like something the world needed to see,” Tyler Bridges, one of the passengers who documented the scene on camera, told the New York Times.

When airlines can’t sweeten the pot enough with vouchers and perks to lure passengers off overbooked flights voluntarily, they rarely have to resort to booting passengers off full flights involuntarily, a move that was even more controversial for this particular flight because United was looking for extra seats for its employees, Bridges said. United spokesperson Charlie Hobart responded at the time that the airline had asked the passenger several times to politely leave the plane, but he refused.

The incident was a turning point for not just United—which apologized for the “upsetting event” and for overbooking the flight—but the whole industry, according to Clint Henderson, managing editor of travel blog and news outlet The Points Guy.

“The airlines dramatically escalated the amount they were willing to pay passengers to volunteer to take a later flight,” Henderson told Fortune. “You sort of had this arms race because the airlines didn’t want to get in a situation where they had to force people off the plane.”

Indeed, airlines made near-immediate changes, with Delta increasing their compensation for overbooked flights to up to almost $10,000. American Airlines updated its Condition of Carriage to prohibit the airline from removing a paying passenger who has already boarded an oversold flight. United implemented a policy requiring flight crew to check in an hour before flights to avoid having to displace passengers in events of oversold flights.

Even the DOT intervened, bolstering its denied boarding compensation rule in 2021 to prohibit airlines from denying boarding to a passenger or involuntarily bumping them if they checked into a flight before the check-in deadline, as well as clarifying that its listed requirements for financial compensation are a minimum, not a maximum. 

As a result of the changes, United “substantially lowered the number of yearly [involuntary denied boardings] since 2017,” Hobart told Fortune.

First-class reputations

United’s 2017 incident may be a distant memory for the aviation industry that’s continued to weather controversy, but how airlines navigate compensation for overbooked flights is a microcosm of the often tenuous relationship between passengers and industry giants.

“It’s always been a push and pull between airlines and consumers,” Henderson said. “I think this is a continuation of that.”

Between shrinking seat sizes and spoiled food, commercial flights have lost their luster in the eyes of travelers. While airlines try to sweeten the pot for travelers with more generous vouchers and perks like ritzy lounges with massages and steak tartare, resentful customers will still do what they can to get a leg up on airlines they feel are ripping them off, Henderson argued. It’s an understandable sentiment from passengers, but it’s also not good news for the industry as whole.

“The airlines are not always the good guys, so I don’t want to make it sound like that,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s not the most profitable business in the world.”

Despite record travel numbers, airlines have yet to see more travelers translate to more profit. Boeing aircraft delivery delays, inflation, labor shortages, and poor expansion strategies have all dented the industry’s bottom line. The bleak outlook of the industry has Henderson concerned about TikTok trends and sharing hacks that may lead too many travelers to take advantage of overbooking rules.

But airlines haven’t found that problem. The number of passengers denied boarding because of oversold flights has actually decreased, with 0.27 passengers per 10,000 from January to March being denied boarding because of an overbooked flight on the 10 largest commercial U.S. airlines. That’s compared to 0.29 passengers per 10,000 in the same period in 2023 and 0.32 passengers per 10,000 in 2022, according to the DOT’s Air Travel Consumer Reports.

Moreover, the number of bumped passengers doesn’t fluctuate based on consumer demand or passengers hoping to cash in by intentionally booking an oversold flight. The amount of tickets an airline offers for an overbooked flight is based on its own predictions of how many people may no-show for a flight—and its own need to turn a profit.

Ultimately, Henderson believes compensation for overbooked flights, regardless of their frequency, is just another way for airline passengers to try to tip the scales of airline economics in their favor, especially when they’re feeling short-changed by the industry giants.

“It’s getting harder to maximize your battle against the airline,” he said.



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