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When things go bump

Say “Yes”, cart your family off the flight and laugh all the way to the bank

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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HOLLYWOOD MOVIES like to depict savvy travellers like 007 whizzing into the airport minutes before the flight, busty blonde draped over one hand and a martini in the other. Mr Bond always manages to find a vacant parking spot, race to his gate and herd this unwieldy ensemble aboard as the engines roar. No one asks him to take his shoes off at security and no one bothers to examine his watch, which contains more lethal ordnance than Batman’s utility belt.

There is a glaring flaw in this scenario. The martini would be shaken, stirred and spilled with all this heaving about. And, contrary to popular belief, 007 would not end up comfortably cruising in first, awaiting the joys of the Mile High Club. He would, instead, get the bum’s rush at check-in and find himself despatched to a Narita capsule hotel, a victim of what airlines like to term, “denied boarding”. In simple parlance, he would be “bumped off”. There’d be no mile-high bonk. The blonde would desert him and Bond would probably die of an overdose of MSG.

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I make it a point to arrive at the airport early. I have it a lot easier than Bond as I do not normally cart blondes about on my arm though I do proudly display blonde hair on my jacket. Okay so the hair belongs to my dog, but who’s to know? I arrive the day before to catch my flight because I do not relish the prospect of being bumped. Yes, you may have a confirmed ticket, but that’s no insurance against a flight that is rather fuller than its seat count might suggest.

Like Bond, I too often have blonde hair on my jacket. Okay so it's my dog's hair, but who's to know...

The fact is all airlines accept more reservations for their flights than there are seats available. Overbooking is a necessary evil, they say. Why? Because a certain percentage of travellers always fail to turn up despite holding confirmed tickets. These spoil-sports are called “no-shows”. Airlines have no way of telling who might end up a no-show despite sophisticated technology, follow-up calls and detailed scans of the newspaper obituary columns. Hence, like the proverbial bakers, they throw in a few extra confirmations for good measure to protect their bottom line.

This is a science. No-show trends are tracked along with the percentage odds of mystery disappearances from city to city based on time of year, the weather and the ongoing War on Terror, Nail-Clippers, Shoes and Iraqi-Manufactured French Mustard. Based on these averages, flights are overbooked accordingly. Things usually work out. Or do they?

According to the US Department of Transportation, in 2002, a total of 836,986 passengers were denied boarding in the US. If that is still the case it’s a staggeringly high number of people taking off their shoes and having thermometers thrust into various cavities for no particular purpose. Of these 2002 figures 803,344 were “voluntary”. I’ll come to this anomaly in a moment. Leading the chart on “involuntary” denied boarding – which is where people scream at the top of their lungs and are dragged off unceremoniously – was Delta (9,222), followed by Southwest (7,928) and United (4,395).

No-show trends are scientifically tracked based on follow-up phone calls and scans of the newspaper obituary columns

All this, however, was against a figure of 467,204,981 enplaned passengers meaning that only a fraction of people ended up in a capsule hotel or at Burger King wondering what to do with their Delta Dollars (which is what Delta likes to hand out).

According to the European Commission, around 250,000 passengers each year get bumped at European airports. Statistics for Asia are less keenly distributed but if you tried arriving late for a Chinese New Year flight out of Hongkong in the days before sneezing chickens made a pig’s breakfast of things, you would most certainly find your travel arrangements shaken and stirred. The EU has taken a tough line and doubled compensation for denied boarding. Starting 2005, the compensation has been set at US$743 for flights over 3,500km, $495 for flights 1,500-3,500km and $310 for shorter trips.

This is all bad news for Russ Elder and his family of five that, according to the New York Times, “has been bumped at least once on nearly every trip they have taken for the past few years.” Elder says his “hobby” has enabled the family to travel extensively. How? He simply volunteers his family to get bumped on overbooked flights and accepts the cash and ticket handouts.

Compensation on international flights can vary from $350 to $750 depending on the inconvenience caused. On domestic US sectors rates range from $200 for delays up to three hours to $600 for anything above six hours. Passengers may be offered free tickets – but these are sans frequent flier miles. For the skinny on recent compensation levels, visit the lively and informative www.BumpTracker.com. Learn from Russ Elder. Arrive 90 minutes before your flight with just hand baggage – and start earning.

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