Americans flying this summer will be faced with not only long lines but also oversold flights.
Airlines are back to filling flights to capacity, and then some, as travel demand spikes to its highest levels since the pandemic began. Flights are frequently oversold in hopes that not all passengers will show up.
The system often works itself out, as passengers miss flights for a host of reasons, and the airline gets to keep the extra revenue from selling more seats than they have.
But it's a bet that airlines sometimes lose, and lose big.
Andy Luten was all set to fly Delta Air Lines from Minneapolis to Iceland on Thursday when gate agents made the announcement that the flight was oversold by 30 passengers.
"I got to the gate and everything was fine," Luten told Insider. "And then they said, 'We're in an oversold situation,' which is not surprising because it's a holiday weekend and it's Iceland."
Iceland was among the first European countries to open to vaccinated American tourists, and airlines like Delta have been adding flights to the capital city of Reykjavik to accommodate the increase in demand. But bad weather meant that the Boeing 757-200 operating the flight would need more fuel and couldn't take as many passengers.
The bidding started at $500 for passengers to take the next flight, and then Delta agents increased it to $700 after nobody raised their hands. If not enough passengers volunteer, airlines will resort to what's known as involuntarily denied boarding and "bump" passengers from a flight.
In that case, the Department of Transportation has guidelines on how much passengers are entitled to in cash compensation, depending on the length of the delay. In Luten's case, as the next flight to Iceland was departing in 24 hours, he'd be entitled to 400% of the one-way fare for a maximum of $1,550.
Luten said he knew he was "at the top of the bump list," as he booked a last-minute round-trip ticket for $465 in basic economy just three days before the flight. Airlines take all those factors into consideration when determining whom to bump.
Eventually, Delta offered $1,500, then $3,000, and, eventually, $4,500. Luten said the first person who received the $4,500 voucher "just went 'woo' and started a high-fiving people."
Luten also got the $4,500 after initially telling Delta agents that he'd take $1,500, and he didn't even make out the best. A family of five from Mississippi walked away with $22,500 in total compensation.
Normally, the $4,500 can be used only to book future flights on an airline, but Delta allows flyers to choose from a selection of gift cards. Among those on offer, Luten said, were from American Express and Visa, which allows him to use the $4,500 almost the same way as cash.
With no other flights to Iceland that night, passengers were given free hotel rooms in Minneapolis and round-trip transportation vouchers to get there. Luten said no meal vouchers were given, but passengers could likely request them when returning to the airport the next day.
Some ways that travelers can hedge against being bumped from a full flight is by checking in as early as possible, arriving at the gate on time, and booking trips well in advance. Holiday weekends are prime for overselling, as Luten found, and travelers with flexibility can use it to their advantage.
"Everybody's going to get to Iceland one day later and $4,500 or $22,500 richer," Luten said.