Traveling across the Atlantic has become something of a routine for me. I have done it every summer for 17 years as an annual pilgrimage to visit relatives in Spain and England. Poor service, crowded planes, my 6-foot frame and arthritis in my neck have made the journey progressively less fun.
But this year was different. I came away nearly $2,700 richer thanks to oversold summer flights, or what the airline industry calls "denied boarding compensation."
Returning from Madrid to Miami, I braced myself for the nine-hour flight. I had made things more complicated by booking late and being unable to find a seat on the same plane as my son. As it stood he was booked on Iberia 6123 at 12:05 p.m. on Aug. 8 and I was on Iberia 6121 at 4:50 the same afternoon.
His was a free ticket booked using my American AdVantage frequent flier miles. I paid $1,347 for my ticket (ouch!), a considerable increase from previous years.
My wife had been phoning American every day for a month to get us on the same flight. I assured my son I would do my best to sort it out at the airport. It was a Friday, and August is when most Spaniards travel. Maybe the flight would be oversold.
It quickly became evident when we got to Madrid's Barajas airport that volunteers would be needed. At the check-in counter a helpful airline attendant informed us there weren't any more seats available. He put my son on stand-by and told us to go to the gate.
When the gate personnel learned my son had not checked luggage they wasted no time signing him up. (Not having luggage checked means the airline doesn't have to go searching in the underbelly of the plane to remove bags.)
At the Iberia ticket desk my son was reseated next to me on the afternoon flight and given 600 Euros in cash (about $900), as well as a meal coupon. Flush with cash, he checked back in for the afternoon flight. My son was amused by the stamps he was amassing in his passport, showing he had left, re-entered and then left the country all on the same day.
At the gate we found a crush of passengers waiting for the flight. It occurred to me that more volunteers might be needed. A gate attendant took down our passport information and told me to wait until all the passengers had boarded. By this time, my son was tired and wanted to go home. I asked what it would take to buy his acquiescence as a volunteer. He recalled a long-term desire: a Nintendo Wii.
Sure enough, two volunteers were needed. Three other passengers had volunteered, but our names were first on the list.
Back to the Iberia desk we tramped to pick up another 1,200 Euros (about $1,800), passing through immigration (again) on the way. We turned down the offer of a hotel as my mother-in-law was expecting us. Iberia offered to pay the $200 taxi ride to her home and back.
I was all set to volunteer again. But my son had by now had enough. The gate was crowded again. To avoid temptation, I didn't inquire if volunteers were needed.
There's not a lot airlines can do about overbooking, said David Castelveter of the Air Transport Association. "Passengers don't show up for flights," he said. "Airline seats are a perishable commodity, so the airlines do their best to fill the seats."
In fact, Castelveter says, airlines have analysts looking closely at booking on busy flights, trying to calculate how many seats they can risk overbooking. "They look to see what the trends are, taking into account holidays and special events. It isn't a science, but it's close to a science."
Castelveter says airlines will cut domestic capacity 9 percent this winter due to fuel costs and the weak economy. Though demand will be down, the ATA expects it will fall less than available space. So if your travel plans permit, you too could cash in on overbooking.
David Adams can be reached at email@example.com.