I’ve spent much of this year in airports and on airplanes. (Including 11 hours at O’Hare on Sunday for a fruitless trip.)
Over the years, I’ve developed strategies for coping with the hassles of air travel. I hope you don’t need any of them on your travels home, but just in case:
- It’s not about you. Don’t take flight cancellations or being involuntarily bumped personally. No one is out to get you. Running an airline is an incredibly hard business even on a good day. Add in miserable weather and high loads and a lot of people are going to be unhappy. As much as their decisions might inconvenience you, there’s usually (though not always) logic behind the decisions. Decisions take into account numerous factors including number of passengers inconvenienced, crew availability, availability of alternate flights and aircraft positioning.
- Life’s not fair. The airline business is a business. It’s not always first come, first served. If there’s a long standby list, the 100k mile traveler who walks up 5 minutes before they start clearing standbys will get the seat over someone who flies once a year on cheap tickets and has been waiting 45 minutes. Although the rules vary by airline, priority lists typically take into account things like frequent flier status, class of service, previous inconvenience, whether you are in a connecting city, fare paid and time of check in. At least three times this year, I’ve watched as airlines denied boarding to people who booked their tickets months earlier and checked in well ahead of time.
- OK, it’s a little about you. Despite these priority rules, gate agents do have some discretion to change your priority. If you’ve got a solid reason, it can’t hurt to ask. Customers who were bumped from previous flights sometimes get this kind of treatment.
- Always call the airline when your flight is canceled. Usually the gate agent will tell you go to the customer service desk for help. Don’t do it. At least not before you call the airline. Get on your cell phone with reservations and ask them for help. Ideally, you’ll do this while you’re walking toward customer service or standing in line. It’s a good idea to have the phone number in your speed dial so you don’t have to fumble for it. Update: With advances in technology, they might be able to rebook you over the phone and email you a new boarding pass that you can pull up on your cell phone. That sure beats waiting in a 90 minute line at the airport!
- Look at the departure boards for other flights to your destination. If your flight is canceled, look to see which gate the next flight to your destination is going out from. If it’s in the next hour, high tail it to that gate and ask the agent to get on that flight. Again, be on your phone with reservations as you’re walking and standing in line. (A handsfree kit is great for this.) If your flight is a few hours away, chances are no one is working that flight yet and you’re better off in the customer service line.
- Look for an empty gate with an unoccupied agent. Gate agents can help you with other flights, but won’t do it if they’re busy running their own flight. Be polite, ask respectfully and you might save yourself a long wait in line.
- Be flexible. If you’re traveling to an area with multiple airports or airports within reasonable driving distance, consider taking flights there. If the change was the airline’s fault, they’ll usually pay to get you where you should’ve been. If it was weather or air-traffic control related, you’re on your own.
- Be nice. People want to help people who are nice to them. The fastest way to get an agent to not help you is to start making demands, threaten to sue or start swearing. I witnessed one passenger in Las Vegas call an agent a “bitch” under his breath as he walked away. She called the gate he was going to and told that agent about it.
- Call your friends. If you’re stuck and have a well-traveled friend, give them a call. I have a couple of people I can call when I get stuck to look up flight availability, hotels and other alternatives. Because they’re not dealing with dozens of other people, they can look at a wider range of options. Although they can’t rebook your flight, they can give you a good picture of what your choices are. With options in hand, you become a gate agent’s friend by making their job easier. If I’m already on your speed dial, feel free to call me when you’re stuck.
- If you have a really sticky problem, try FlyerTalk. FlyerTalk is the ultimate travel resource. It’s populated by ultra-frequent travelers. Many of them know more about airline reservations and ticketing than the typical reservations agent. Do a search to see if your problem is already covered. If it isn’t, pick the appropriate forum for your airline and post your question. Be sure you provide all the pertinent information, but don’t post things like confirmation numbers.
- Sign up for your airline’s text messaging service. Many airlines these days offer text message alerts. In normal travel, this will send you flight status information including gate assignments. As airlines automate their service recovery, they’re using text messages to communicate flight information. When United cancels a flight they can often rebook you automatically. Your new flight information gets sent to your cell phone. (This doesn’t work in the case of mass cancellations, but I’ve found it to be useful.)
- Don’t put too much stock in the flight status boards. When there is extreme weather and a lot of cancellations, the flight status boards are usually fiction. The times shown are best guesses and can change frequently. It’s important to know that they can also become earlier. This Sunday, I saw a flight go from a scheduled 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. back to an on time departure. It actually left at 11:00 p.m., so the people who relied on the 12:30 a.m. time missed it. If you leave the gate area, use your cell phone or laptop and check on the flight every 15 minutes or so.
- Keep your cell phone and laptop chargers in your carry on. If you suffer long delays, there’s a good chance you’ll run out of power. You might need these tools to help book your next flight. Because every gadget seemingly has its own style of connector, these are hard to come by in an airport. If you find that you are running out of power, look for a “power save” mode, which usually lets you eke out some more use by dimming the screen or throttling the processor.
- Keep a pair of headphones in your laptop bag. With a laptop, headphones and Wifi, you can amuse yourself while you wait for your next flight. I spent one recent delay watching crappy television at fox.com. It won’t make your delay any shorter, but it will feel like it.