03/04/2013 07:34 am ET Updated May 04, 2013

How To Lose A 'Free' Airline Ticket

When Qatar Airways oversold Anto Nirmal's recent flight from Trivandrum, India, to Doha, he volunteered to surrender his seat and take the next scheduled flight. In exchange, Qatar Airways offered him a voucher, which he could use for a future trip.

This overbooking-bumping tango takes place every day around the world. The U.S. Department of Transportation reports 538,911 passengers offered to give up their seats in exchange for an extra ticket in 2011, the last year for which numbers are available.

But what happened next isn't so common.

Nirmal, an engineer with an energy company based in Houston, says his employer asked him to fork over the voucher when he returned. Since he was flying on business, it claimed the voucher was company property.

"I would like to know whom the compensation should go to -- myself or my employer?" he asked me on my customer service blog. "I feel I should have it, as I suffered waiting in the airport for six hours. But my employer is feeling the opposite."

What belongs to you?

This raises a much bigger issue of what belongs to you when you travel by air. Not much, it turns out. Take frequent flier miles. Some employers claim the miles are their property, and every now and then you'll see a dustup on one of the mileage blogs where an indignant business traveler will claim his hard-earned miles are being stolen from him. Australian public servants are not allowed to redeem miles collected through official travel.

Truth is, the miles belong to neither party. Check out the membership agreement on your frequent flier program if you don't believe me. The points are the airline's property and can be confiscated at any time, for any reason. To some air travelers, that makes them worthless.

Vouchers fall under the same category. Companies know that the redemption rates on certificates are often less than 10 percent. In other words, you could stand on a street corner handing out a voucher for a Qatar Airways ticket, knowing that less than 1 in 10 people would actually use it. I suppose it would depend which street corner you decided to go to, as well.

Virtually all vouchers expire after a year, which is why accepting credit for something you paid for is almost always the wrong move. One of the cleverest airline tricks is offering you a flight credit (minus a $150 change fee) from the date of your booking, not the date of the cancellation. Passengers are constantly assuming that the voucher is good for an entire year from the date of the change, and they're sometimes in for an unpleasant surprise when they try to redeem the airline scrip.

Time is everything

But back to Nirmal's question. Strictly speaking, the company was paying for him to get from India to Qatar. If Nirmal was flying on his own time, which is to say he wasn't "on the clock," and he gave up his seat, then Nirmal should view the voucher as compensation for six hours of his life. But if the company paid him for his time, then the voucher belongs to his employer.

As a practical matter, it may be difficult for his boss to do anything with the Qatari funny money. The certificate may have his employee's name on it, and in order to make it even more difficult to use these vouchers, airlines sometimes stipulate that the credit must be used on the same routing.

So good luck with that.

But Nirmal ought to be commended for asking this question. Some employees would just assume that because they're flying, they deserve all the benefits. That's not necessarily true.

By the way, after you've left a comment here, let's continue the discussion on my consumer advocacy site or on Twitter, Facebook and Google. I also have a free newsletter. Here"s the signup form.