Delta will now pay up to $9,950 to overbooked passengers, but don’t count on cash

What’s his overbooking strategy?
What’s his overbooking strategy?
Image: Reuters/Sim Wei Yang
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Travelers who give up their seats on an overbooked Delta flight can now get up to $9,950 in compensation, thanks to a higher limit established by the airline on Friday. Delta has been lauded for the move, which comes in the wake of the violent removal of a United passenger last week.

Delta’s new cap is generous. It’s more than seven times higher than the previous limit of $1,350 paid to passengers who help the airline out when it sells more tickets than it can accomodate. But the lucrative offer has a caveat: It almost certainly won’t be in cash.

Here’s how much cash Delta paid out in compensation to the average passenger who was denied boarding in 2016: $9.

Bear in mind that this figure includes both passengers who volunteer to give up those seat and those who are selected if no volunteers are found. The new $9,950 cap only applies to travelers voluntarily giving up their seat; the US Department of Transport mandates that travelers who are involuntarily removed from flights are compensated up to a maximum of $1,350.

How much did Delta pay out in cash to people who volunteered to miss their flight, the case the new limit applies to, in 2016? It’s tiny.

That $0.08 is no aberration—Delta has historically paid out the least in cash among the US airlines when it comes to compensating travelers who get pushed off overbooked flights. In the last eight years, it paid just over $25 in cash per bumped passenger, which is still significantly lower than the $40 SkyWest, the next lowest cash-paying airline, distributed.

So what does Delta give the customers it can’t fly, if not cash?

Delta told Quartz that it pays passengers who volunteer to take a different flight in “cash and gift cards.” Given its historically low cash payout, the former is less likely. If you’re lucky, you get a choice of gift cards from merchants like American Express or Target, as this woman did. A woman named Laura Begley Bloom pocketed a cool $11,000 worth of gift cards when she capitalized on a series of flight delays earlier this month.

But not every Delta gate offers gift cards from American Express, which are nearly as good as cash. The travel blog Points, Miles, and Martinis found that only major airports in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Atlanta offered this option. Everyone else just gets Delta vouchers.

There’s one big downside to vouchers, as a commenter at the travel blog that broke the news of Delta’s new cap, One Mile At A Time, pointed out: They can only be used once (Update: Quartz is checking with Delta on whether vouchers carry residual value), so even if a traveller received a $9,950 voucher, it could only be redeemed for a single, lavish, flight, rather than split across several cheaper flights over time—which wouldn’t be a problem with cash .