Airlines' busiest time of the year

The other day, a couple in front of me at the airport ticket counter were surprised to find their reservations weren't readily found. They eventually worked things out, but then at the gate, the agents started asking for volunteers to give up their seats. Why would that happen?

— Amy J., via email

It might be the most wonderful time of the year in some respects, but when it comes to air travel, it's simply the most hectic time of them all.

Airlines trimmed capacity in recent years as a poor economy and soaring fuel costs cut into profitability. That means here and elsewhere, lines are longer as travelers try to crowd on the few available seats.

"Particular during peak travel times, flights are oversold," said Marilyn Somics of TravelHost. "If you have a paid reservation and ticket number and checked in on time, there's no reason you can't be boarded. But when they oversold the flight, or another flight has been canceled and airlines have to make arrangements for those passengers, they have to take volunteers."

While some travelers have skillfully learned the art of being bumped from flights in exchange for cash or a voucher for future flights, that approach isn't for everyone.

"I usually want to get where I'm going and am not interested in getting bumped," Somics said. "But if they need volunteers, they have to keep upping the ante."

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