If you're bumped off a flight, you could be entitled to compensation.
I was on Bill Clinton’s trail during the Lewinsky affair in the Nineties when I arrived at Washington Dulles airport, only to discover that the seat I’d booked had been given to another. I was being bumped—or, as it’s technically called, “Voluntary Denied Boarding”.
It wasn’t personal; it’s policy for most airlines to overbook seats, and complex algorithms are deployed to make sure their planes take off as full as possible. There’s always a percentage of “no shows” at check-in, so the maths generally works out—except when it doesn’t and you find yourself with a ticket and nowhere to go.
Some might despair in such a situation. But, unless you’re in a real hurry, it could turn out to be a lucky break. The airline will usually offer to put you on the next flight, but if you hold your line you can exact a princely ransom in return for being bumped.
In my case, by volunteering to take the flight the next day from Washington, I was upgraded to business and got a free economy transatlantic flight to boot. When it happened again recently on the way to Dublin, I garnered overnight expenses, lounge access, an upgrade and some extra frequent-flyer miles.
If you’re “forced” to bump, you can get cash compensation too. But remember: when you do your deal, if you have connecting flights, make sure the airline confirms the seat reservations all the way through, so you don’t find yourself being bumped again at another destination.