|How do airlines work?|
Airlines oversell their flights, ALWAYs. Especially if everyone in the universe is trying to get to the same place for a gigantic conference. So just because you bought a ticket, you don't actually have a guaranteed seat on that flight.
I witnessed the horrible tragedy of a woman not getting to her satellite event talk because she didn't have a seat on a plane for which she had bought a seat. They asked my flight for 8 volunteers to bump to another flight to New Orleans. 8 people! That means that 8 people who BOUGHT tickets did not have seats on the plane.
They didn't have enough volunteers so some people were involuntarily bumped! Including our noble heroine who bravely decided to drive from our connecting city all the way to New Orleans to at least get there the same day, but unfortunately not in time to give her talk. (7 hour drive)
Ok so how can you avoid being in this situation?
As far as I can tell, the best way to lock in your seat is to actually check into your flight as early as possible. That usually means going online and printing your boarding pass. But that alone is not good enough. The online checkin process usually opens 24 hours before the flight, so my advice is to set an alarm exactly 24 hours before your flight and checkin online right then.
One of the airlines I ended up taking doesn't even automatically give boarding passes to the last 15 people who check in. They give 'security passes' so you can get through security and to the gate but you do not have official permission to board your flight.
So check in early and if you are presenting on Saturday afternoon get a flight on Friday. DO NOT count on everything going smoothly at the airport.
What I have just described is pretty much a worst-case scenario, and obviously plenty of people made it to New Orleans without much trouble (check out the #SfN12 tag to read about all the fun things people are doing there).
So yeah, I am writing this at the airport...but at least I'm not driving. And thank goodness my poster is not until Wednesday.