Air Travel Guide: Planning and Booking and Recovering from Mishaps

As airlines cut capacity and raise prices, travelers can expect more delays and more hassles in the approaching holiday season. Less traffic on certain routes means less competition, …

As airlines cut capacity and raise prices, travelers can expect more delays and more hassles in the approaching holiday season. Less traffic on certain routes means less competition, and less capacity on higher traffic routes means higher demand, either way leading to higher prices on top of the many other inconveniences brought about by new fees and regulations. Whether you are trying to get home or trying to view a property or prospective business, the airlines may be as much your foe as they are your ally in reaching your destination.

What can travelers do to mitigate these problems?

Planning

Airlines are offering fewer non-stop flights over longer distances and to less traveled locations, so dreaded connecting flights will be more common for many travelers.  Layovers and lost luggage aside, making connections can be a struggle as the unforgiving winter season weather sabotages even the best laid plans.

Expect delays and other hassles for many flights this year|]Travelers can’t plan around the weather in their starting and ending points, but if a connecting flight is necessary, seasoned travelers know that choosing connecting flights in areas less troubled by wind, rain and snow are safer bets. Is the flight that connects in mountainous Denver slightly cheaper than the one through Las Vegas? Consider the extra expense of the Vegas flight as an insurance policy if your travel plans are urgent.

But Mother Nature is actually more predictable than the carriers themselves. Choosing a major hub is another safety measure even if it is a little further from your home or your destination, as flights to smaller airports more frequently face delays and cancellations. In addition, it is much harder to find an alternate carrier from these smaller ports should something go awry.

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If you have booked well in advance, it doesn’t hurt to contact your carrier to make sure that they haven’t stopped service or changed itineraries related to your flight. They won’t bother to call you. Some carriers and discounters offer text and e-mail updates. Sign up for these, even if you think that they will be an unnecessary nuisance when the time comes. And if you have the time, make a nuisance of yourself and call three weeks and one week before your flight. These periods give you adequate buffers to rebook at a reasonable price if necessary.

Lastly, connectors with longer layovers are undesirable, but if you have to choose between one that may have you waiting an extra few hours and one that may be too close to call if things are delayed—or overbooked—think about giving yourself that extra buffer. It is better to wait than to not arrive at all.

Booking

In 2008, several airlines declared bankruptcy and halted service almost overnight. Other carriers were forced to suspend flights for days because of technical and financial difficulties. Booking well in advance may now seem like a gamble to many, but it is still your best bet for finding the cheapest seats.

Airlines are more intent than ever on filling every last seat on every flight, hence the decrease in capacity. This means that they are filling up long before the scheduled date and thus offering fewer seats to discounters, such as Expedia and Orbitz (and on that note, check Orbitz first for long distance flights). So last minute purchases are no longer for deal-makers; they are for emergencies only.

Recovering

All your best laid plans may still be laid to waste, but there are certain guarantees to help you along. There is no federal regulation to force carriers to find a new flight for passengers in the event of a cancellation, but travelers are absolutely entitled to a refund, even on nonrefundable tickets. It is then up to them to find another carrier…or is it?

During the days of airline regulation, a provision known as Rule 240 ensured that if a cancellation or misconnection occurred within an airline’s control, the airline was required to place passengers on the next flight or on a competing or partnered carrier’s flight at no cost to the passenger. This rule is no longer enforced, but in the contract of carriage for certain carriers a similar provision still exists. A quick look at the position of major carriers on this matter:

  • American Airlines: Does not guarantee rebooking in a timely fashion, even in the event of their own mistake. Should your trip be delayed overnight, they will provide overnight accommodations, within reason and subject to availability.
  • Continental: Will place passengers on the next available Continental flight, upgrading Coach passengers to First or Business Class if Coach is unavailable.
  • Delta: May arrange for a flight on another carrier or by ground transport at Delta’s discretion. Take that to mean what you will, but it doesn’t provide a guarantee of any sort.
  • Northwest: Accommodates passengers on the next available NWA flight or that of another carrier in the same seating class or higher should nothing else be available.
  • United: Will place passengers on allied airlines flights—but will not upgrade to a higher class—in the event that United cannot accommodate the passenger in an acceptable fashion.
  • US Airways: May attempt to book a passenger on a flight of an allied airline should they be unable to accommodate the passenger within their own flight schedule.
  • Alaska and Hawaiian: Will at no charge provide seating on a competing airline in the same or higher class if the original carrier is unable to accommodate the passenger.
  • Southwest: May at their discretion place passengers on competing carriers’ flights if necessary.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has also established some rights for passengers in the last year. Passengers who are involuntarily bumped from a flight are entitled to no less than $800 in compensation. But beware: Some airlines will offer flight vouchers to those who are involuntarily bumped, and if the passenger accepts then the bump officially becomes voluntary. With prices as they are now, some vouchers may actually be worth more than $800 to some travelers, but not in most cases. Demand cash if you are forced to take a later flight because of overbooking.

Finally, remember that though the airlines may seem oblivious to the urgency of your trip, many of the staff who you meet will know very well how urgent situations can be. They hear about it every day. Because many of their policies are discretionary, it’s best to remain as calm and polite—but assertive—as possible when an emergency strikes. It’s distasteful to admit, but the airlines hold your fate in their hands at the moment of crisis. Just remember that many of them are getting desperate and that they will need loyal customers—and so ultimately you also hold their fate in your hands.

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