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Delta tests out silent auction for overbooked fliers

Travelers wait in line to check in at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: So after you bought those airline tickets online and got on the plane, you discovered planes are fuller then ever. The government's considering new rules that airlines would have to follow on flights that're overbooked, rules about bumping people off those planes involuntarily.

But Delta Airlines is trying to get out ahead of the feds with a silent auction of sorts: Passengers bidding on what it would take for them to voluntarily give up their seats.

From New York, here's Marketplace's Janet Babin.


Janet Babin: No, it's not your imagination. More of us are getting bumped off flights, especially if we book cheap seats or pay in frequent flyer miles.

MIT aeronautics professor John Hansman says the airlines have increased passengers on flights.

John Hansman: Ten years ago, they would only book about 70 percent of the seats. Today that number's closer to 82, 83 percent.

The more people booked, the more who show up, the more flights are overbooked.

Delta has a new solution: Ask people what they'd be willing to be pay to step off a flight. Delta spokesman Paul Skrbek says when people check in, online or at the gate, they're now asked whether they'd be willing to rebook a later flight, and if so, how much they'd require Delta to pay them, in the form of a voucher.

Airline consultant Craig Jenks says Delta's silent bidding system could make for happier passengers.

Craig Jenks: The really good thing about it, is that it should reduce to zero involuntary bumping.

Jenks says other airlines will likely follow Delta's lead.

But Kate Hannai with flyersrights.org, says a silent auction is deceptive. She says the airlines should do this out in the open.

Kate Hannai: At the point they're at the gate, if there's an open auction, where they continue to increase the amount that they offer.

The government recently doubled the compensation passengers are entitled to when they're rebooked on a later flight. So how much should your starting bid be? $400 -- that's what the government says, if you're bumped off most domestic flights.

In New York, I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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