8 (Potentially Money-Making) Things You Need to Know About Giving Up Your Airplane Seat

Know your rights — and a dose of financial strategy.

After yesterday’s shocking video went viral, showing a bloodied passenger on a United Airlines flight being forcibly removed, many flyers wonder if such an inexplicable-seeming fate possibly could ever unfold for them, too.

According to the airline, this passenger was randomly selected to be booted off his oversold flight, but didn’t cooperate; he said he was a doctor whose patients couldn't wait. While the video is disturbing to watch, George Hobica, founder and president of Airfare Watchdog, says the the procedure itself is actually legit, at least when carried out lawfully.

“An airline can give up your spot, no matter if you have a spot booked or not. They can remove you using an air marshal, [for instance] if the plane is too heavy to fly due to atmospheric conditions — and really for any reason they come up with,” he explains. “‘Transportation is not guaranteed’ is a common proviso in the airlines’ contracts of carriage.”

So if you’re faced with this situation — or an airport employee is dangling a tempting voucher or wad of cold-hard cash in front of you — what are your rights, and what's the best strategy? Here's what you need to know about giving up your seat.

1.  Lower your risk of removal by flying first class, and being a loyalty program member.

As Hobica says, you can be asked to take a later flight in exchange for being bumped, get a voucher for future bookings, travel stipend, financial compensation, and even a full refund. Legally, when you book a ticket, that fine print explains that the airline has the final say. That being said, to lower your risk, Hobica recommends a few tactics, “Fly first class or have status in the frequent flier program and you’re less likely to be dragged down the aisle," he says.

2.  You should expect a payout.

Technically, the U.S. Department of Transportation requires it. According to its website, the amount depends on how long it takes an airline to get you to your destination. As an example, if you’re flying from New York to Miami and you were supposed to touch down at 2 p.m., but because you gave up your seat for someone else, you took a later flight and landed at 3:30 p.m., you’re owed 200 percent of the one-way ticket you paid for. And you can earn more the longer the delay. There are certain limits to how much you can gain (of course), but as one family of four famously experienced and shared in a Forbes story this week, the payout reached an impressive $11,000. So it can be seriously lucrative to raise your hand.

3.  The longer you hold out, the more you can earn.

Though there are some regulations from the DOT, airline employees do have some negotiating power, meaning you should bring your poker face to the gate if you’re not in a particular hurry to get where you’re going. As the mom mentioned above experienced with Delta, her husband was able to talk up the price per ticket, and the more seemingly desperate the airline became to encourage folks to give up C10 and C11, the more that voucher's value soared.

4.  If the potential for payout is your goal, book at peak times.

Some jet-setters take advantage of an overbook situation as a strategy — and it can be a very profitable one. SmartTravel.com suggests booking tickets during especially busy times — like early-evening, mid-morning any day, or Thursday nights, Fridays or Sundays. And if you don’t want to lug to the airport to just sit there idling and waiting to be asked to volunteer, you can call ahead to see if the flight is overbooked before you commute.

5.  Mention your seat is up for grabs when you check in.

Another way to get in on the bumped-seat action is to let the airline employee know from the get-go that you’re not on a tight schedule and ask to be added to the volunteer list, according to SmartTravel. Why? Most of the time when there is a standby list or an overbook situation, volunteers are added in the order they’re received. That means if another savvy traveler is trying to hop on the same cash flow you are, you’ll beat them to the punch.

6.  These airlines offer the best chance of paying to bump you.

Depending on how you’re hoping to travel, you'll either want to avoid these airlines or book them: SmartTravel says American West, United, US Airways, AirTran, and Northwest have the most bumped passengers on their flights, with numbers rising each and every year. If you choose to go with these jets to travel, you might be in the position to earn cash or rewards. On the other hand, if you are more anxious and need to get to your destination ASAP, you’re probably better booking a flight elsewhere.

7.  And this one offers the least.

To that end, most airlines overbook as a rule — but not all do. JetBlue, for instance, has a policy not to overbook; it's right there on the website. (That said, the airline does note that flight cancellations that require re-accommodations could cause situations that feel similar in nature.)

8.  Accept reality.

Even if it’s unlucky timing and random selection, if you’re asked to give up your seat and offered cash because no one else would volunteer their spot, Hobica says to follow instructions. To avoid a tense situation, do your best to negotiate the most money in return for the inconvenience of being bumped from an overbooked flight — but listen and be courteous. After all, as Hobica says, “Legally, you must obey crew member instructions. It’s a blanket FAA rule.”

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