The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With the clock ticking down toward takeoff, the airline looked for one volunteer

A plane taxis at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va. (Samuel Corum/Bloomberg News)

As I waited to board a flight to Wilmington, N.C., last week, my biggest worry was whether I’d have to fight anyone for the last overhead storage space, given my cellar-dwelling position in boarding group eight.

Then an announcement came over the intercom: The 5 p.m. flight was overbooked by a single seat. They needed someone to take a later flight – well, two flights: Instead of a quick direct flight arriving at 6:26 p.m., the volunteer would take a 7 p.m. flight to LaGuardia, transfer, then fly back south, arriving in Wilmington at 10:59 p.m.

Good luck with that, I said to myself. Even with the $200 in airline credit they were offering, why would anyone give up his seat? Still, I was curious how they would select the unlucky passenger. A lottery? A spelling bee? A boxing match? I took a seat near the gate to watch how things would play out.

About 20 minutes before boarding was due to begin, the gate attendant clicked his microphone and made another announcement. “We’re still looking for a volunteer to take a later flight to Wilmington. You will get in at 11 p.m. and we can offer you a $500 travel credit.”

The ante had been upped.

I could hear a couple behind me weighing it. They sounded like practiced hands, reminiscing about wonderful trips they’d managed to assemble from the scraps of inconvenience. If you had all the time in the world — and didn’t mind roaming the terminal for a place to spend your complimentary $12 meal voucher — why not volunteer? Two hundred dollars here, $500 there and soon you had yourself a vacation, or at least the airfare to one.

But not this time. They wanted to arrive in Wilmington together.

A few more minutes passed uncomfortably. There was a second airline employee at the gate now and the two co-workers conversed in hushed tones. Was it time for the battle royal at last?

One of the gate agents walked from behind the desk and approached a man I’d noticed sitting by himself in one of those airport wheelchairs. The man was elderly and wore an embroidered ball cap that marked him as a veteran. I couldn’t see what was written on it. “Vietnam,” probably. Or maybe “Korea.” A few people had thanked him for his service, though exactly where that service was, I couldn’t be sure.

The gate agent leaned down to the old man and nervously explained that the flight to Wilmington was overbooked by one seat. If no one volunteered to stay behind, the man would be bumped. But he shouldn’t worry. He’d be put on a flight to LaGuardia and then on one to Wilmington. He’d get in at 10:59 p.m.

“I bought my ticket three weeks ago,” the man protested.

And then the gate agent explained the pitiless calculus of the oversold flight: The man had been the last to check in. Last to check in, first to get booted off.

Boarding was about to begin. The gate agent made another announcement: The flight credit for the volunteer was now $700.

Even before the enticement had been sweetened, I’d made my decision. I walked to the elderly man. I could see now that his hat said “Iwo Jima.”

“Looks like you’re on the bubble,” I said.

“I bought my damn ticket three weeks ago,” he said.

“Do you live here or in Wilmington?” I asked.

Wilmington, he said. He’d been at the Hilton Crystal City for a reunion of veterans of Iwo Jima, the bitter battle that began in February 1945 and ended five weeks later at the cost of 27,000 U.S. casualties, including 7,000 Americans killed.

What’s the youngest he could have been today? 95? And they were going to bump this guy?

I explained that I was going to visit a veteran myself: my father, who flew jets in the Vietnam War. I said I hoped that if my dad was in the same situation, someone would give up their seat for him. I thanked the man for his service and walked to the gate.

“I’ll give up my seat,” I said.

The gate agents looked like they wanted to hug me. I really couldn’t blame them for the situation. I blamed the airline for relying on some algorithm that predicts no-shows — imperfectly, as it turns out.

While one agent typed up my volunteer papers and printed out my $700 credit, the other went over to the World War II vet and told him he could board.

“I can wheel you to the plane,” he said.

With the help of a cane, the vet levered himself out of the wheelchair and stood up.

“I can walk,” he said.

Never volunteer?