Delta Takes Bids on Bumped Seats

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Delta Air Lines has phased in a new program that gives prized vouchers for getting bumped to the lowest bidder--and the silent auction starts before travelers reach the departure gate.

The airline has rolled out a new system that prompts travelers who are checking in online and at airport kiosks to name their compensation price if the flight is overbooked. If the plane does fill up, customers with the lowest bids will be the first offered vouchers.

The process starts as soon as a flight has been booked past capacity, which Delta spokesman Paul R. Skrbec tells AOL Travel News is usually at least 24 hours in advance--just in time for customers checking in online to take advantage of the system. At check-in, Delta will then present an additional screen asking customers if they would like to submit a bid for a travel voucher. Customers enter a whole dollar amount, which is forwarded electronically to the agents at the departure gate for review.

The new system allows Delta agents to get an early start on rebooking as customers make their way to the airport, through security, and to their gate, Skrbec says. If the flight ends up being completely full, gate agents are prepared to discuss options for revised travel plans to customers with the lowest bids.

"From our perspective, the benefit is primarily efficiency at the gate. Agents have a lot of different tasks to go through to board the plane," says Skrbec.

"We've shifted the process forward so travelers have more time to think about their travel plans, allowing customers to make decisions based on factors such as if someone is going to be at their destination to pick them up."

How low would you go? When passengers are involuntarily bumped, federal rules require airlines compensate travelers equal to their original fare up to a $400 maximum, or give them an $800 maximum if no substitute travel arrangements are made. On the other hand, when taking bump volunteers at departure gates, it is typical for airlines to start soliciting at $200 and then offer more money if no volunteers come forward.

Critics of Delta's new plan are quick to point out the airline can easily benefit from the system, noting inexperienced travelers might make low-ball bids that undercut more seasoned flyers who are well aware of what a bumped flight is worth.

Skrbec says Delta has taken steps to ensure travelers "have full information during the process." He maintains the lowest bidder will always be called up to the gate agent for a private conversation in which they will be clued in to federal regulations, and that travelers will be able to decline the voucher offer if they choose.

"It's a very new program so we're watching it very carefully in case we need to make modifications to benefit customers," says Skrbec. He insists feedback from customers and airline employees has so far been positive.

"It's a win-win," he says.

The new system has been up and running at nearly 200 locations across the U.S. since November, and went online in December.

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