Everyone has horror stories about air travel: delayed red eyes, lost luggage, unruly pets chewing on travel crates. Megan Keaveny has at least managed to make some money with hers.
A lot of money, in fact: $3,000, which the 30-year-old real estate broker received from Delta Air Lines for giving up his seat on a flight – which originally cost $358 – from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. York in West Palm Beach, Florida, according to Keaveny.
“As we boarded, a gate agent announced, ‘We need 22 people to get off this flight. We’re offering $1,300 to all volunteers,” Keaveny told CNBC Make It. She texted her boyfriend and friends, who had already boarded, and said she would only trade places. for $2,000.
A few minutes later, she boarded the plane. Then the agent announced that the price had risen to $2,500. By the time Keaveny and a handful of other passengers disembarked, the price had reached $3,000. “I nearly broke my neck sprinting down the driveway,” she says.
Experts say Keaveny’s experience, while perhaps more lucrative than usual, is not uncommon: this summer, airlines are particularly likely to offer large sums of money to passengers willing to giving up their seat at the airport gate, mainly due to overbooked flights.
Flights are more oversold, delayed and canceled than ever before because airlines “have aggressively tried to capture an expected surge in demand,” says Willis Orlando, senior flight expert at Scott’s Cheap Flights.
Throughout the spring, Americans made many summer travel plans, Orlando says. But then, when summer arrived, airlines found themselves without enough staff to support their promised routes – especially after furloughing and laying off crew throughout the pandemic, and doing facing a large number of Covid illnesses among the remaining staff.
When planes are overbooked, airlines technically don’t need passengers to volunteer to rebook – they can kick passengers off flights without asking. But “ejected” passengers are protected by federal law: If you’re involuntarily removed from a flight and your changed flight has to depart one to two hours after your original flight departs, the airline must pay you the double your fare, up to $750.
If your changed flight is scheduled more than two hours later, it’s four times your fare, up to $1,550.
Airlines offer volunteers more money than they are required to pay for two reasons, Orlando explains: to preserve their reputation for customer service and to keep their flights as on time as possible.
“If a plane is delayed for two hours because of a problem getting people off the plane, there aren’t enough crew and pilots to make sure it doesn’t impact their entire network,” he said. “Before the pandemic, they weren’t in danger of their entire network collapsing with one or two whack flights.”
Orlando says you can maximize the money you get for offering your seat by never accepting the airline’s first offer. “We always advise people to run up front and ask what the last person is getting,” he says. “It’s always the best deal.”
Keaveny ended up flying to Fort Lauderdale and took a roughly $50 Uber to West Palm Beach. She says she only arrived a few hours after her friends and would consider offering her seat on future flights. If she wasn’t on a schedule, she probably could have done the same thing on her modified flight, she adds.
Orlando confirms it’s doable: Airlines don’t have to report how many people gave up their seats on a given flight, allowing customers to rinse and repeat while they have the chance.
“We could have started over that day and made more money with LaGuardia,” Keaveny laughs.
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