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Airline Aggravation - Flight Delays

“Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you…”

These are the words that raise the blood pressure of any airline traveler. You know whatever words come next are not going to be good. Instantly, thoughts race through your mind. Flight cancellation? Weather delay? Mechanical problem? Flight overbooked?

There are some measures you can take to minimize these airline aggravations:

1. Avoid airlines and flights where delays are common.

Large airlines keep track of their on-time performance on a flight-by-flight basis. If booking online, try the carrier’s site first. Many list  their online performance rates, although they may be a bit difficult to find. For example, if you search United Airlines schedules by  price, the online performance is not displayed. However, if you search by schedule, it is displayed. If booking over the phone, ask the  agent for the on-time performance code, a rating system of “1” to “9” that indicates the percentage of on-time arrivals (i.e., arrivals  within 15 minutes of scheduled arrival times). For example, an "8" means that flight arrived on schedule between 80% and 89.9% of  the time. If you have a choice of flights, try for the flight with the best on-time performance.

2. Arrange flight notifications.

Many travel booking web sites and the larger airlines’ official sites offer free flight notifications that can be sent to your pager, cell  phone or e-mail. These notifications offer information such as flight delays, departure gate assignments and gate changes. Conceivably,  this could save you lots of time, but in actuality, they seem to be only marginally effective. Airlines often wait until the last minute to  announce a delay, so you may not be notified until you arrive at the airport.

3. Avoid connecting flights if possible.

The greatest impact of flight delays is when they cause you to miss a connecting flight. With today’s airline hub-and-spoke system, this  is easier said than done, especially when the connecting flight option is less expensive. If the price difference is minimal, justify the extra expense of a direct flight by deducting the amount you’d save by not buying the meal, drink, magazine, and gift shop purchases during  your layover (at airport stand prices!) Avoiding a connecting flight is especially important when you have a scheduled event you must  attend such as a wedding, business meeting, conference or job interview.

 Keep in mind how weather can affect connections. While weather problems usually delay less than 1% of all flights, the delays  are dependent on the season. Connecting through Chicago or Denver in May is fine, but you may wish to connect elsewhere come  January due to the chance of snow and sleet. Conversely, Atlanta in winter is fine, but in spring may be a poor choice due to  thunderstorms.

If you have a choice of a 45-minute layover or 1:45-minute layover, you may wish to opt for the longer one. Those 45 minutes  between arrival of your first flight and departure of your connecting flight may seem like plenty of time. However, when you add a 10  minute delay, 10 minutes to deplane, 10 minutes to get to the connecting gate, and the 10 minutes prior to departure door closing, you  may not even have time to find the restroom. If you’ve opted for the longer layover and your first flight is slightly delayed, you'll still  have plenty of time to make your connection and even get your shoes shined. If you arrive early, you may be able to fly standby on the earlier flight and still be guaranteed a seat on the later flight. Just head to the first flight’s gate and explain you are on a later flight and  would love to hop on the early one if there’s room. If your original flight is more heavily booked, the airline might be delighted to put  you on the earlier flight.

4. Avoid the last flight of the day.

If you are on the last flight out and it is canceled, your options become not which flight will be best but whether you’ll be sleeping in the airport or at a local hotel. Whenever possible, pick a flight that leaves an hour or two before the last flight of the day. In a pinch, you  might be able to get on the other flight (this is really only a viable option if you have not checked bags on the original flight).

5. Arrive early and check in.

With airport traffic, backed up rental car return counters, long check-in lines, and security checkpoints, there are always obstacles to  slow down a traveler in a hurry. And the less time a passenger allows, the greater the risk of lost or delayed luggage, seat assignments  right next to the lavatory or denied boarding due to overbooking or a missed flight. Most airlines begin boarding 30 or more minutes  prior to departure and close the doors 10 minutes before backing out of the gate. Don’t make the mistake of hanging out at the airport  bar and arriving at the gate five minutes before departure if you expect to board.

6. Expect delays.

If your schedule requires you to arrive on time to make your appointment, you’re simply asking for trouble. “On-time arrival” is often  an oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp” or “working vacation”. Pad enough time into your schedule so that a flight delay won’t impact your  business meeting or cruise departure. When notified of the delay, don’t be surprised if it turns into a creeping delay. That mechanical  delay of 15 minutes due to a burned out bulb can creep into an hour as they “have to get the paperwork signed off.”

How to Handle a Delay

1. Keep your cool.

Keep in mind that airlines don’t guarantee their schedules. A weather problem in Topeka can delay your flight to San Francisco if that  is where your aircraft originates. No amount of yelling at the gate agent can conjure up a plane that is 2000 miles away and socked in  by fog. Be polite but firm. Use terms like “What can you do for me?” or “Perhaps you could route me through another airport?” or “Is  it possible to put me on another carrier’s flight?” You are much more likely to get that extra effort from the agent if you avoid saying  things like “This always happens to me when I fly this rotten airline!” or “This is pathetic!”

2. Be patient.

A flight delay is generally just that--a delay. Whether due to a delayed incoming flight or mechanical problem, the flight usually takes  off, albeit an hour or more late. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, it is not wise to attempt to switch flights. First, there is no  guarantee another flight will be any less problematic (especially if the delay is due to weather) . If you’ve checked any bags, you will  either be separated from your luggage or not be allowed to switch, since you must fly on the same plane as your bags for security  reasons. Although you may wish to deplane if an extended delay has you stuck at the gate imprisoned inside the stuffy plane, often the  plane may be given a last minute OK to depart and must depart immediately lest it lose its takeoff slot.

3. Call the reservations center.

When a flight is cancelled, you may find yourself in a long line of fellow travelers awaiting a customer service agent to make alternate  flight arrangements. You can avoid all this and use a phone to contact the reservations center directly. If there are only 10 seats  available on the next flight and you’re 20th in line, the math calculation is quite easy. By calling the reservation center, you can  essentially jump yourself to the beginning of the line. In most cases, a phone agent can assist in rescheduling a flight as efficiently as an  airport agent.

4. Know your rights (or more aptly, your lack of rights).

Each airline has its own policies about what it will do for delayed passengers waiting at the airport; there are no federal requirements. If you are delayed, ask the airline staff if they will pay for meals or give you a hotel voucher. Some airlines, often those charging very low  fares, do not provide any amenities to stranded passengers. Others may not offer amenities if the delay is caused by bad weather or  something else beyond the airline's control. Contrary to popular belief, airlines are not required to compensate passengers whose  flights are delayed or canceled. Airlines typically provide meal or hotel vouchers only for extenuating circumstances and only on return  trips, not the originating outbound flights.

5. If all else fails, ask to see the customer service agent.

If you are not getting an acceptable resolution for your problem, ask to see the airline’s customer service representative. Often, these  are very experienced, former gate agents who have the familiarity and authority to make arrangements that a gate agent may lack.  Customer service agents are usually the only people who can authorize a switch to another airline, hotel vouchers or alternate  transportation such as a bus. Be sure that they spell out all your options and then decide. In a weather delay, you may be better off  getting a guaranteed flight the next morning rather than a stand-by allocation on the next (already overbooked!) flight.

6. Notify everyone down the line.

Be sure to notify people or organizations expecting you. Call the hotel, car rental company, limo service, business associates, or friends picking you up, especially in cases where the next available flight is not until the following day. Guaranteed reservations or not, hotels  and rental companies may classify you as a no-show and give away your room or car and have none available the next day. The limo  service may charge you if they’ve sent a driver to the airport only to find you missed your flight. Be sure you have a complete itinerary  with phone numbers and confirmation codes you may need to look up your information.

7. Airline bumping.

Airlines routinely sell more tickets for a flight than they have seats. This is known as "overbooking" and, contrary to common sense, is  not illegal and does help to keep airplane tickets cheaper by attempting to account for the inevitable no-shows on every flight. In cases  where the airline overestimates the number of no-shows, the airline must get some passengers to voluntarily give up their seats and/or  deny boarding to the late arrivers. Airlines have complete latitude as to what to offer to get passengers to voluntarily give up their seats.  These usually take the form of a guaranteed seat on the next flight (which may be the following day) and a voucher for $100 or  more off a future ticket. If you’re booked on an overbooked flight and have flexible travel plans, feel free to negotiate. It is not  uncommon to receive a first- or business-class upgrade on the next flight along with a meal voucher. If you don’t like the deal, don’t  take it.

If the airline fails to get enough passengers to volunteer to give up their seats, they may deny boarding to some unlucky passengers. If  that unlucky passenger is you, then it is helpful to know your rights.

If you are bumped involuntarily and the airline arranges alternate transportation that is scheduled to get you to your final destination  (including later connections) within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time, there is no compensation.

If the airline arranges alternate transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after your  original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), the airline must pay you an amount equal to your one-way  fare to your final destination, with a $200 minimum.

If the alternate transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the  airline does not make any substitute travel arrangements for you, the compensation doubles (200% of your fare, $400 minimum).

You are always permitted to keep your original ticket and use it on another flight. If you choose to make your own arrangements, you  can request an "involuntary refund" for the ticket for the flight you were bumped from. The denied boarding compensation is essentially a payment for your inconvenience. Keep in mind that you must meet the airline's requirements for ticketing check-in deadlines. Airlines  are free to set their own check-in deadlines which may be as low as 10 minutes or as long as an hour or more before takeoff. These  rules do not apply to planes with 60 or fewer seats, international flights to the United States or charter flights. As mentioned earlier, the easiest way to avoid being bumped is getting to the airport early, leaving some other unlucky traveler to be the bumped passenger.

Keep In Mind...Delays, cancellations, and bumps are much easier to handle when you’ve elected not to check baggage. When all your belongings are  with you, it is a simple matter to grab your stuff and hop on the next available flight. With your bags in the belly of the plane, you often  have very limited options. So remember to pack light and choose a bag that meets airline carry-on requirements.



Travel Advice

Flight Delays      

Getting a Good Flight's Sleep

Avoiding Jet Lag 

Cardiovascular Disease and Travel

Insect Protection 

Eight Nifty Cell Phone Travel Tips 

Packing for the Unexpected

Securing Your Luggage 

Seven Days and One Carry-on Bag

The Five Commandments of Packing 

Lost Luggage 

Avoiding Pickpockets 

Hotel Security for the Traveler 

Security Tips for the Female Traveler 

Take Great Vacation Photos





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