Why travellers should cash in on overbooked flights

Simon Calder
Helping hand: Simon Calder auditions ineffectively as a member of Delta ground staff: Douglas Bolton
Helping hand: Simon Calder auditions ineffectively as a member of Delta ground staff: Douglas Bolton

Here in seat 7D somewhere over southwest Utah, I am still wondering why Virgin Atlantic and its partner, Delta, were prepared to sell me a ticket that involved a prime Sunday afternoon departure.

Perhaps it was a festive gesture. The last thing I did before closing my laptop on 24 December was to book a February trip to California and Florida. (It’s all work, honestly.)

I have an appointment early on Monday morning in Long Beach, a southern suburb of Los Angeles. The obvious way to get there the night before was to fly from Heathrow to LAX, the international airport for the great southern Californian sprawl.

But that hub is some distance from Long Beach, which has a domestic airport of its own. Furthermore LAX has glacially slow queues for immigration; I have waited in line for two hours before.

So I was taken with the idea of connecting somewhere in the US, preferably at a smaller airport where passport inspection tends to be much faster.

I needed to fly nonstop back from Miami to Heathrow, so I checked the possibilities on British Airways and its partner American Airlines. But a Delta-Virgin Atlantic combo yelled: “Pick me.”

Part one: Delta’s 9.25am departure from Heathrow to its Salt Lake City hub. Part two: the airline was happy to sell me an ambitious 60-minute connection to a commuter jet for the remaining two hours to Long Beach.

I like quick connections, but I always check: what if something goes wrong? An hour’s transfer can be challenging enough without the twin uncertainties of US Customs and Border Protection swiftly followed by the TSA security check.

Sure enough, another Long Beach flight was scheduled six hours later – useful to keep in the back pocket in case of disruption.

Part three, a Virgin Atlantic nonstop from Miami to London, completed the deal at a very reasonable £315 (I am flying jetBlue from the west coast to the east). Click. Merry Christmas.

The transatlantic flight left Heathrow right on schedule, but was six minutes late at Salt Lake City. After a journey of 5,000 miles, that is usually insignificant, but it narrowed my window by 10 per cent.

“You’ll be fine,” the cabin crew chorused, to allay my anxiety. They were quite right. Even with the time handicap of starting at the rear of economy, I was through the checks and at the gate for the onward flight with half-an-hour to spare.

As I queued to collect a boarding pass from the desk, it became clear that the subject of voluntary upgrades was under discussion. US airlines are masters of overbooking – selling more tickets than there are seats available on a flight – and, usually, handling it right when everyone turns up. They offer increasingly large bribes to persuade people to volunteer to give up their seats. On this occasion the incentive had just reached $600 (£455).

“Pick me,” I yelled silently. And, when I reached the front of the queue, they did.

Delta staff, whether onboard aircraft or on the ground, are top class. But Vern, customer service agent at Salt Lake City, was outstanding. As he rebooked me on the later flight and arranged to refund my entire fare (with an extra £140 on top), Vern made me feel as though I was doing him and the airline a favour by relinquishing my seat. He even invited me to his side of the counter to tap in my email address for the payment (which, interestingly, comes in the form of a virtual debit card loaded with $600).

Earn-while-you-wait got even better when I finally stepped aboard the flight to Long Beach. The only seat left on the later flight was in Economy Plus, which means extra legroom. And a free beer.

While sitting and sipping comfortably, I still don’t understand why they sold me the ticket. Domestic add-ons to international tickets usually provide very little additional revenue. They should only be sold on flights where the airline knows seats will be empty. And that does not include a prime Sunday afternoon departure to southern California on a relatively small plane.

I hope you will one day benefit too. Just stay flexible.

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