I knew something was wrong as soon as I got to the gate for my connecting flight. I almost had to push my way through that arm-crossing, foot-stamping, throat-clearing crowd. Exhausted after my trek across the airport, I threw myself like an old overcoat onto the one remaining chair and prepared to wait.
Opposite me were a pair of backpackers. He, probably French from his accent, was incredibly thin. Forget the Paleo Diet and the Atkins Diet, the one diet that always works is the poverty diet. I imagined he lived off a bowl of noodles a day. Next to him, half asleep on his shoulder was his girlfriend. Korean I thought, from a quick shufti at her boarding pass. I always try to guess people’s nationality when I travel. It helps to pass the time.
The dreaded announcement came.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are very sorry to inform you that your flight to Tokyo Narita this morning is overbooked. We are looking for eight volunteers to take a later flight. There are other options available to you today and —”
The woman at the microphone stepped back and consulted with her colleagues before continuing. I never heard what she said next because the people next to me evidently couldn’t understand English and talked all over the final part of the announcement.
“Harrumph,” I thought to myself. “Who on earth is going to volunteer to get off the flight? There’s no way that I’m doing it.” Then I felt a cold drop of sweat gather at the back of my neck. “What if there are no volunteers? What if I get bumped off the flight?”
It was only then that I noticed that the French-Korean couple had jumped up and were chatting to the person who had made the announcement. After some ten minutes of wrangling, they came back to their seats, beaming with satisfaction. Happy? What did they have to be happy about?
I had to know.
“Excuse me,” I said, “but did you just –”
“Yeah,” said the girl, with a slight American accent. “We volunteered to go on the next flight.”
“We always do it,” grinned the guy. “It’s all part of the plan.”
The French guy pulled his massive backpack over his shoulders. It was only then that I noticed his Heisenberg T-shirt, probably not the best choice of clothing for someone about to cross various international borders. It was almost inviting some sort of intrusive body search.
“Sure,” said the girl. “We always do this. We’ve been travelling the world for, like, basically free for over a year.”
I frowned so much that I could feel my eyebrows moving together, like two hairy caterpillars duelling over a prime patch for a chrysalis.
“It works like this,” said the guy. “You buy your tickets on credit card right? So you don’t pay anything until the next month.”
“And you always buy your tickets at peak times,” continued the girl. “Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, all of that. The flights are always overbooked, so they ask for volunteers to change to another flight.”
“Who wants to change flights, hein?” continued the guy. “They need to give you a little incentive. A little bit of sweetener. So they give you back the cost of the flight.”
“Like today,” continued his girlfriend, “they’re offering €600 per person to change planes. That’s more than we paid for our tickets. So we’re flying to Japan for free. We do it all the time.”
“What if there’s no plane the same day?” I asked.
“They have to put you up in a hotel,” said the guy. “There’s always one next to the airport.”
“It’s so good!” said the girl, “after sleeping in youth hostels to have like a clean bathroom, your own room, no bunk beds, all at someone else’s expense.”
“You get a free meal too,” added her travelling companion, “and breakfast the next day.”
“That’s incredible,” I said.
“One person loses, another person wins,” shrugged the French guy. “Bon voyage!”
“Sayonara” waved the girl, and they were gone, laughing together like lottery winners. Soon all I could see of them were the sleeping rolls on top of their backpacks bumping like flotsam over the heads of the crowd.