The impingement of drops onto solid surfaces1, 2 plays a crucial role in a variety of processes, including inkjet printing, fog harvesting, anti-icing, dropwise condensation and spray coating3, 4, 5, 6. Recent efforts in understanding and controlling drop impact behaviour focused on superhydrophobic surfaces with specific surface structures enabling drop bouncing with reduced contact time7, 8. Here, we report a different universal bouncing mechanism that occurs on both wetting and non-wetting flat surfaces for both high and low surface tension liquids. Using high-speed multiple-wavelength interferometry9, we show that this bouncing mechanism is based on the continuous presence of an air film for moderate drop impact velocities. This submicrometre ‘air cushion’ slows down the incoming drop and reverses its momentum. Viscous forces in the air film play a key role in this process: they provide transient stability of the air cushion against squeeze-out, mediate momentum transfer, and contribute a substantial part of the energy dissipation during bouncing.