For air travelers, the time between Thanksgiving and New Years’ can be unbearable. Crowded terminals, full planes, frayed tempers await the average traveler. But this year, instead of writing yet another “surviving the holidays” story, I asked Joe Farrell to tell us how he makes it through the busy season.
Farrell, a regular commentator on this site, is an an attorney in Marlborough, Conn., who logs 100,000 miles a year. He used to fly commercial, racking up elite status on TWA and American Airlines. Now he prefers piloting his 1971 Piper Comanche. It allows him to avoid the headaches of using a domestic carrier. “Any trip north of Texas and east of Iowa we mostly fly ourselves,” he says.
Here, then, are Joe’s tips for a sane holiday travel season:
Have you ever sat in a boarding area and had a boarding time approach, and there is no airplane at the gate? And the time now set for arrival of the inbound flight is the former departure time? The departure time is then 10 or 15 minutes after the arrival, and you have a 60, 75 or even 90 minute connection and wonder if you will make it?
Remember, you can ASK a gate agent for a rebook on another flight or airline if you can prove simply there is no way you will make the connection. At that point, you have names, dates, and real times to use in your favor.
If you have a Blackberry/Smart Phone or Wi-fi computer with you, here are some valuable websites to know in the situation where you think you will be late and may miss a connection.
Perhaps the most useful site is flightaware.com .
This Web site allows to track, in virtually real time, the status of the inbound flight to your gate from the actual air traffic control data. Let’s say, for example, you are departing Bradley Airport outside Hartford, Conn., for the Delta Airlines hub in Atlanta, connecting to Los Angeles. You are on the 10.10 a.m. flight #1270. It is 9:45 a.m. and there is no airplane at the gate. The gate agents tell you that you can expect to leave at 10.30 a.m., with the inbound scheduled in at 10.15 a.m. If you go to the ‘arrivals’ monitor, and find your gate number, you will see the flight number.
Going to Flightaware.com, you input the airline and flight number, and it tells you that, according to the estimate, that the flight is schedule to land at 10:32 a.m. It also shows you that the airplane is over the NC / VA border, some 350 miles away. Do you think it is remotely possible that you will take off at 10:30 a.m. if the aircraft is not going to land until 10:32 a.m.? An 11:15 a.m. departure is more likely how the airlines really operate. Your connection is at 1.30 p.m. and there is a two-hour flight [time in air] from BDL-ATL.
Think you will make it? You will arrive in Atlanta until 1.15 p.m. if you take off at 11.15 a.m. What about your luggage?
At this point, open another browser window and find out when the next connection is from ATL-LAX. In this case, there is one at 2.30 p.m. You should saunter up to the gate agent, taking note of their name [writing it down] and ask them about your connection by asking “I am concerned about my connection, what time are we scheduled to arrive in Atlanta with the new departure time?”
They’ll say ‘it’ll be fine.’ You should press the issue, and at this time, open the browser or the computer and offer to show them [do not shove it in their face] where the inbound is, and then state, clearly, “the inbound is not due here until XXXX . I would like you to tell me if there is space on flight YYYY from ATL to LAX, which the next departure if I misconnect.’ That gives the gate agent something to do instead of talking to you, and they will most likely tell you.
If it looks ‘good,’ ask them to move you to that flight as an accommodation for a schedule irregularity. If they refuse, ask them politely to place your request into the notes or comments section of your passenger record. If they ask why, say, you are concerned about your scheduled connection given that your inbound is not arriving until ZZZZ.
In my example, which is common, with the airline telling you that YOUR flight will depart the instant it arrives, the airline knows that passengers will give the airline another 15 minutes to board and then another 15 minutes to depart. By putting the request in the record, you have made a written record of your request.
Alternatively, ask right then to be re-booked on another connection. In this example, Delta has a non-stop to LAX from BDL leaving at 3 p.m., arriving the same time as your busted misconnection on the new flight. Which flight would you rather be on? A nonstop or a connection? If they say no, again, ask politely that the refusal be noted in the comments section. You are making a record here for a potential claim if you have one, such as a missed meeting or extensive delay or missed hotel room.
With flights operating near full over the holidays, indeed most days, the chances of making a misconnect standby on a new flight are very low. Especially if 10 or 20 other people are on that same flight and may have a higher standby priority.
If you make the request, and it is refused, there is now a record of it. You are in the drivers seat when it comes time to make a claim. You can PROVE you asked to re-accommodated the result of knowing the airline was posting misleading departure times for a connection. They refused and they knew or should have known you would misconnect.
Next, lets expose airline ‘lies.’ These are useful to coerce the gate agent to re-accommodate you on a flight of your choosing.
First off, is there an arrival delay at your airport?
First, look out the window. Is it raining? Snowing? Thundering? Low clouds or overcast? That might a tip-off. Like any weather forecaster, look out the window as part of your preparation for your flight.
Also, go to fly.faa.gov and then select the ‘Region’ from the drop down box and click on your airport. Most major airports that have air carrier service are listed under the specific region they are in. If there a weather or other delay, it shows up when you click your arrival airport. If there is no ATC arrival delay listed, then there is no delay caused by or known to ATC.
The other place, for more sophisticated travelers, is under the “Products” section of the same FAA Web site. That section lists a whole series of very informative products which detail the current state of the ATC system. Delays can happen for any number of reasons other than weather. Runway construction, navigation outages, presidential and VIP movements, all sorts of things can mix up the system, and this is the place to find them.
Notably, the ‘Glossary’ explains most of the terms and abbreviations, and the ‘Advisories Database’ is an excellent source of information on current delays.
In my experience, ALL non-weather delays are caused by airport over-scheduling by airlines, except for ATC equipment malfunctions or airport construction. If you look only at Atlanta–Hartsfield, or any other hub airport, an airline will schedule 50 departures between 1:15 p.m. and 1:45 p.m. If you need 2 minutes between airplanes, then it takes 100 minutes, or over 1 ½ hours, to clear the flights. Over half will be at least 30 minutes late taking off. This ripples throughout the rest of the system.
Another topic: connections.
While there is little you can do to force an airline to take action in this area, forewarned is forearmed. Let’s say your trip starts in Charleston, SC, traveling to Seattle. It would a very good idea to discover where your connecting airplane is coming from, and see if it is on time. A cursory glance at the weather can often be the key if you know the starting city for your connecting flight. Given the modern hub-and-spoke airline system, your connection is likely coming from another city.
You can determine in most cases where that flight is coming from since it likely comes from that location every day. Simply log onto flightaware.com using the flight number, and you will see if the flight is a continuation flight through the hub city. Airline Websites often have this information as well, and you can search for arrival and departure times for specific flights, which often list the origin, hub and destination times. The BEST flight to choose is one that travels direct [if not nonstop] through the hub city. This way, so long as you are on the airplane, you know it will get there eventually, most likely.
In our example, your flight to Seattle may be arriving at the hub from Boston. Looking at the weather on television, you see that there is nasty weather across all of New England. Thus, there is the possibility of a delay. You want to know since there is always the possibility that your airline can accommodate you through another hub. Not only does it make sense to check your inbound to make sure that you will be on time, but also your connection. If they cancel the flight from Boston to the hub, your connection may get canceled as well. Once again, if you are one of the first to be reaccommodated, you may actually make it to Seattle that day.
Here, if you KNOW the inbound is canceled or delayed for hours in Boston, you can ask to be shifted to another flight, through another hub city, or exercise your rights to be reaccommodated on another airline.
Finally, before you go up to a gate agent, KNOW WHAT YOU WANT. Check that airline’s schedule in advance and ask specifically for the re-route or flights you want. If you appear to know you are doing and how the system works, the gate or ticket agent may be more willing to give you what you want. Make their job easy; it is human nature to like that approach. If there are only a few seats left for reaccommodation that day, who gets them? Unaccompanied minors, the elderly, the top frequent fliers, those who got there first, then everyone else.
Then, check the other airlines schedules as well. If they refuse to put you on another airline – press them for a reason. If they claim ‘weather’ is the cause for the delay, meaning they do not need to reaccommodate you, ask them where the weather is if it is not outside the window. Use that cell phone – take a picture of the weather out the window; most cell phones have timestamps on pictures.
Above all, be polite but persistent. A gate agent will refuse to deal with an irate passenger, but it is much more difficult to refuse to answer questions which are nicely put, and are questions and not accusations. In most cases, after a couple of pointed questions, a gate agent will try to get you out of their hair. In many cases, you get what you want. Simply by asking, instead of badgering.
I’ll tell you a story about knowing your options. In March 2007, I was traveling from Charleston, SC to Hartfor. There was a major snowstorm in the northeast two days earlier. Flights were full and reaccommodating people from the canceled flights was a major problem. I was ticketed on flights and had seat assignments.
The airline canceled my flight from their hub to Charleston, so I could not get to the hub to get to my flight. The airline had no flights at all that day into Hartford with any space on them. I could travel to the hub city to see if I could get on one, but it was at my risk. This meant that I was on my own for food and lodging. They rebooked me onto a flight the next day. I had important meetings in the morning the next day and could not delay.
This airline offered me a hotel and food voucher in Charleston. All of their flights to Providence, Boston, the New York airports, and even Albany, were full with extensive standby lists the result of the storm. Well, I knew of one place that not even the most seasoned traveler thinks has airline service; New Haven Connecticut, on another airline.
The gate agent looked it up, and — voila — I could leave in 45 minutes for a three-stop tour up the east coast, arriving in New Haven at 9 p.m. There were enough seats on the flight into New Haven to accommodate all of the people who had been given hotel and meal vouchers by the airline. The ticket agent was not even aware that New Haven had service, so, the other people were inconvenienced not because they could not get to Connecticut, but because they not know which airports had airline service.
By knowing my options I got home that night. Perhaps it took 5 hours longer, but I got home. The moral of this story is knowing your options, and know your rights. My carrier canceled my flight to their hub for their own reasons, not for weather. Thus, I had the right to be reaccommodated on another carrier.
Airline travel in 2007 is definitely an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ contact sport. Help your odds by getting as much information as you can about alternatives when things go badly – which, it seems, happens more and more every day.
Forewarned is forearmed, and knowledge is power.