Delta wants your seat, takes bids for bumping

How much would it take to get you to give up your seat on an overbooked airline flight?

Delta Air Lines is telling customers to name their price -- in some cases before they even leave for the airport.

Delta, like other airlines, has long had a system of asking for volunteers to be bumped to a later flight  in exchange for vouchers toward future travel. Some passengers make a sport out of volunteering and thrive off free flights they collect.

Now, Delta is taking the system one step further. It has turned the voluntary bumping system into an auction that starts online with travelers' bids, a move some industry observers say may be a first among major carriers.

If a flight is overbooked, travelers checking in at an airport kiosk or online see a screen asking them if they'd like to submit a bid for the value of a travel voucher they would take to be bumped. Customers enter a dollar amount. Delta makes clear that it accepts lower bids first.

While Delta previously asked for volunteers by offering a specific amount in vouchers -- say, $200 -- the new system requires travelers to name their price. The bidding methods could burn inexperienced travelers who offer a low bid. Experienced travelers, meanwhile, may find themselves undercut in the effort to collect vouchers.

Delta benefits because the system could mean smaller amounts being paid out in compensation and thus lower costs for overbooking and bumping.

Delta spokesman Anthony Black said the bidding system also cuts down on the time gate agents spend sorting through volunteers, which should speed boarding and cut down on delays.

"They can do all that in advance," Black said. "Through technology we're actually creating additional time for our gate agents to manage the process of boarding passengers.... This is a big thing for the operation."

The gate agent can look for ways the passengers can be rescheduled. Black said agents can still give out additional compensation, such as hotel vouchers, if the next flight isn't until the following day.

"I think it's a great system," said Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance. "It's a pecking order created by consumers. The only negative would be when the consumers allow the pecking order to be built on ignorance and they don't understand what their rights are." He also said passengers should be aware of any limits on voucher use.

Black did not have information on average compensation under the new system, which began being used in Atlanta on kiosks in November and online in December.

Some people may still wind up being involuntarily bumped, which happens when a flight is still overbooked after volunteers are solicited. If the delay from an involuntary bumping is more than an hour, federal rules require that airlines pay at least the price of their one-way fare up to $400 to $800, depending on how long the traveler is delayed.

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