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Bumped off flight? Utahn goes for it!

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A Utah resident has made a science out of getting bumped. He volunteers to give up his seat on an overbooked flight as often as his schedule will permit.

Every time he succeeds, he receives some kind of compensation from the airline, usually a travel voucher that he can exchange for a free round-trip ticket.In addition to the voucher, he is booked on the next available flight.

More and more airline passengers are discovering that being bumped is an inexpensive, albeit time-consuming, way to get an airline ticket, or a travel credit good toward the purchase of a ticket.

Airlines monitor passenger loads and can predict, usually with a high degree of accuracy, the number of passengers who will fail to show up for a flight. They often sell more seats than they have on the airplane to compensate for the "no shows."

For example, United Airlines's no-show factor normally runs between 10 percent and 15 percent. But once in awhile it can reach as high as 30 percent.

Occasionally, an airline's predictions fall short and more confirmed passengers show up for a flight than there are seats on the plane. That's when the airline asks for volunteers to give up their seats in exchange for compensation, which the airlines call "denied boarding compensation."

The airline books the bumped passenger on the next available flight, as well.

The compensation may vary depending on the length of the flight and how long the bumped passenger has to wait for the next available flight. It also depends on how many people volunteer to be bumped. If there are no takers, the gate agent will likely increase the ante.

The compensation is usually in the form of travel vouchers. Some airlines issue vouchers for a specific amount of money that can be used toward the purchase of a ticket on that airline. Others, such as Delta, issue vouchers that can be exchanged for a round-trip ticket.

The Utah resident, who asked that his name not be used, enjoys the fruits of his labors - as does his family.

His daughter and her new husband will fly to Jamaica for their honeymoon. And he and his wife recently flew to Anchorage on the spur-of-the-moment for a long weekend. The retail value of those tickets was $995 each.

But, as the saying goes, there's no free lunch.

He pays a price for the free vouchers. He's spent anywhere from 40 minutes to hours waiting for the next available flight. He has even stayed overnight.

"I expect that I'm going to be bumped on every other trip I take. I go there hoping to be bumped on every flight," he said.

He takes work to keep him occupied.

The best case is catching another flight in 35 to 40 minutes. The worst case is being delayed several hours and routed through cities well off the usual route. "I got home a lot later and the inconvenience was significant," he said.

On a recent trip from San Diego to Salt Lake City, he was voluntarily bumped four times, from four consecutive flights. He ended up staying overnight. "They (the airline) put me up at the nicest hotel in San Diego."

He came home with four travel vouchers in his pocket.

If you want to try your luck at this airline lottery, here's advice that might increase your chances of success:

- Book a seat on a flight that's likely to be oversold. According to the magazine Conde Nast Traveler, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays are busy travel days, and peak travel time is between 3 and 7 p.m. The magazine published guidelines for being bumped in its December 1997 issue.

- Make sure there are other flights to your destination later in the day, advised Conde Nast.

- Schedule your itinerary so it won't matter whether you arrive at your destination late that night instead of midday, or even the following morning.

- Travel with carry-on luggage. (The reasons, we assume, are obvious.)

- Arrive at the gate at least one hour before the scheduled departure time and volunteer your seat immediately, as soon as you reach the gate. "I am number one on the bumping list. The airlines generally don't bump a large number of passengers, usually one or two people," said our Utah source. "If you wait until they announce that they need volunteers, you're too late. There's usually a mad rush."

- Know what the airline routinely offers as compensation.

- If you end up spending the night, ask the airline to put you up, including meal vouchers and transportation from the airport to the hotel and back. If you have a long wait in the airport, ask the airline for meal vouchers to tide you over until your flight.

The airline is not obliged to provide meal vouchers and overnight accommodations to passengers who have been voluntarily bumped, but it may well do so. It doesn't hurt to ask.

- Ask if you can use the airline's phone to make a long-distance call

- Ask for a first-class seat on the next available flight. The airline might just give you one.

In addition to being booked on the next available flight, here's what to expect from some of the major airlines that fly out of Salt Lake City regarding passengers who voluntarily give up their confirmed seat:

American Airlines offers vouchers worth a specific dollar amount toward the purchase of a ticket on another American Airlines flight. According to spokesman John Hotard, it's a bidding system that begins at $100. It goes up from there. The vouchers are non-transferrable, meaning you can't hand them over to someone else. You must redeem the voucher, but the ticket you buy with the voucher can be issued in the name of another person.

Delta Air Lines gives volunteers either a voucher that's good for a free coach round-trip ticket to anywhere Delta flies in the United States (except Hawaii), or a travel credit that can be applied toward the purchase of Delta tick-et. As well as being valid to any domestic destination (except Hawaii), the free round-trip ticket may be used between U.S. cities served by Delta and destinations in Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean. The vouchers are valid for one year. Miles on the free ticket can't be applied toward your frequent flier miles. The vouchers are transferrable, but once they've been turned into a ticket, they are no longer transferrable.

Southwest will give you a voucher that has a face value equal to what you paid for the flight. Depending on the circumstances, there might be additional compensation. If you purchased a round-trip ticket from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas, for example, and you get bumped on the return flight, the value of the voucher will equal what you paid for the one-way fare.

United Airlines issues travel credits in dollar amounts. Their value will vary from flight to flight according to the circumstances. The credits may be used toward the purchase of a ticket on United or United Express flights and are good for one year.