Click photo to enlarge
FILE - In this Feb. 9, 2010 file photo, an American Airlines passenger checks the departure board for flight delays and cancellations at O'Hare Airport in Chicago. Federal officials are expected to announce this week a plan to raise the maximum amount that airlines must pay passengers who get bumped off an oversold flight, currently at $400 or $800 depending on how long a trip is delayed. (AP Photo/Jim Prisching, File)

Remember the days when getting your hands on free airline tickets was easier than finding a crime drama on television?

Well, get ready, because those days may soon be upon us again.

The Obama administration's proposal to significantly increase compensation for airline passengers bumped from a flight means that airlines will have a lot more incentive to persuade passengers to give up their seats willingly.

Currently, passengers who are forced to give up their seat and don't arrive at their destination within two hours (four hours for international flights) of their original scheduled time receive a $400 check. They receive $800 if they land later than that.

Under the proposal, which would go into effect later this year, passengers denied boarding would receive between $650 and $1,300. A $1,300 check suddenly makes getting involuntarily bumped seem a lot more palatable. And a lot less likely to happen.

During all of last year, only 762,422 passengers were bumped off overbooked flights, and as Bestfares.com founder Tom Parsons points out, about 90 percent of them willingly gave up their seats in exchange for compensation determined by the airlines. In most of those cases, volunteers receive airline vouchers good toward future travel.

"An airline would rather offer someone 500 Mickey Mouse dollars to fly their airline," Parsons explains, "than deny someone boarding and have to give them cash. That's actual money out of their pocket."

Factor in the new increases and clearly, the airlines have up to $500 worth of incentive to whittle down that 10 percent and find more volunteers willing to accept vouchers instead.

Money is the underlying reason for bumping. Airlines oversell flights to avoid flying with empty seats — it's an economic gamble needed for an industry losing billions of dollars each year. Plus, airlines come out ahead when they give one passenger a $300 voucher to accommodate another passenger paying $1,000 for a last-minute ticket. So make no mistake, airlines are looking for willing bumpers.

"The law says that airlines have to make every attempt to find volunteers," Parsons says. "If $300 is not working, then they need to up the ante."

That's where the $1,300 threat will create the biggest advantage.

"Some will attempt even harder to get bumped," says George Hobica of Airfarewatchdog.com. "There's a subset of passengers who have this down to a science and fly free year after year."

Frequent volunteers aren't the only ones who can get in on the action. If you would like to try occasionally giving up your seat, it helps to know the tricks.

For that, we turn to a pro. Parsons was what he calls a "career bumpee" in the 1970s and early '80s, when airlines offered cash to those who gave up their seats. Today, he still tries to get in on the action — for the right price.

If you want to volunteer your seat, Parsons offers this advice:

  • Check out an airline's online seating chart before your flight. If no seats are available, chances are the flight is oversold and the airline will need volunteers.

  • Dress nicely — torn jeans won't leave a good impression. Also, asking nicely will go over better than being demanding with airline employees.

  • Save your negotiations for the gate agent. Also try to be first in line — you likely won't be the only one volunteering.

  • Explain that you think the flight is oversold and ask what compensation is being offered. Also ask what flight they will "protect" for you. This tells you how long you will have to wait and offers a guaranteed seat on that flight.

    Be wary of airlines that offer "priority standby." This does not guarantee a seat on a specific flight and passengers belonging to the airline's elite programs can jump ahead of you on that priority list.

  • If you will have a long delay (three or more hours), ask if you can get a pass to the airline's club. "All they can do is say no," Parsons says. Also act as if you expect to receive a meal voucher. Requesting upgrades to first class is a common practice, too.

  • Also find out if the voucher is restricted to your use only. One thing to keep in mind is that vouchers often cannot be used for online purchases. You will have to call an airline and pay a fee to make the purchase with an agent.

  • Do not surrender your boarding pass. "As long as you have that boarding pass, the plane's not leaving without you," Parsons says. If the agent takes down your name as a possible volunteer, ask if there's a certain time you should check back.

  • Be prepared to wait in the airport; volunteers may not learn if they are accepted until 5-10 minutes before departure. If you are bumped, you may need to wait until after the plane takes off to get your voucher.

    Your negotiating power also increases on flights where it is difficult to find volunteers, such as once-daily service to a destination.

    It also helps to know if your airline has interlining agreements with other airlines. Under these agreements, your airline can arrange for you to fly on one of these "partner" airlines. It helps to know what other flights are available.

    Go ahead, play a little hardball. The government is handing passengers a $1,300-bargaining chip. Why shouldn't we make the most out of it?

    Contact Ann Tatko-Peterson at atatko@bayareanewsgroup.com.