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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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Not an open auction!

I've encountered this "offer" twice in the past month or so. Nice idea, terrible implementation. Max allowable bid? $400.

You can only chose less than the suggested amount. Great tool if you have too many people interested. Hides actual value by limiting real bids.

Am I right in thinking that one reason airlines overbook flights is so that they don't lose money when people don't show for flights? But isn't selling a ticket for a seat that one person already paid for to someone else JUST IN CASE the first passenger doesn't show double dipping? Last time I checked, they don't give you your money back if you can't use the ticket you bought. And its not okay to bump the person who unkowingly purchased a ticket for a seat that already had an occupant.

If flights are 'overbooked' because as people start showing up at the gate, the gate attendant realizes that there are more overweight people than first anticipated, then maybe airlines should look into assuming that most Americans weigh between 200 and 300 lbs now, NOT 100-200. They should assume that the average passenger carries crams 50 lbs of stuff in their carry on (not 20-you'd be surprised how much you can really fit into an 'overhead bin approved' carry on) and they should UNDERBOOK flights accordingly.

And a final thought: If flights are getting overbooked because those 'cheap fare' internet sites sell more tickets than the plane has seats, then maybe we should investigate THEIR business practices.

Even better-lets go back to the old school way of buying tickets: direct from the airline ticket agent. I don't remember getting bumped from any overbooked flights back in the day when you had to talk to a real human employed by the airline to buy your ticket to Aruba.

I flew Continental last year, and they had their own silent auction system: they named a price on the voucher to get someone to get off the flight, and everyone stayed silent.

Is all a matter of minimum standards. I do not care if is a bureaucrat or an industry that sets them, but public needs to know in advance what they are dealing with at minimum.

I'd sure rather have a bureaucrat deciding the fair price than a corporation. Banks, mortgage firms, oil companies, the healthcare industry, etc. ... how is it that after the last decade people still think the government is the boogie man and that corporations only have our best interests at heart?

"The government recently doubled the compensation passengers are entitled to when they're rebooked on a later flight."
Really? We want bureaucrats deciding what is a fair price?

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