Travel & Leisure
Delayed & Confused
Travel Special: Conquer Stress
By Peter Greenberg
Nov 04 2007
Ten ways to outsmart the airlines any time of year
In the past year, I have flown on 110 flights—and 11 arrived on time. As awful as that performance is, it doesn't even reflect the worst travel nightmares of the year, including record numbers of lost bags, overflowing lavatories, and the infamous JetBlue odyssey in which passengers were trapped on the tarmac for nearly 11 hours. In the first half of the year, more than 93,000 flights were canceled, an increase of 44 percent over the first half of 2006, according to the Department of Transportation. Yes, 2007 will go down as the worst year in history for flight delays, cancellations, and stranded passengers since they started keeping records of these things.
How did we get from bad to so much worse? Well, the Federal Aviation Administration is using a nearly 20-year-old computer system, and it shows. Among its many drawbacks, the air traffic control system does not adjust for increasing capacity in the sky. On the morning of June 8, 2007, a common scenario played out: The 20-year-old computers in Atlanta failed, and when the FAA rerouted flight-plan data to Salt Lake City, those computers overloaded. The result? Virtually every airplane on the East Coast was grounded for an average of four hours.
As if that's not enough, major carriers are understaffed and, as a result, have been canceling hundreds of flights in the last week or so of each month, creating massive delays (and stranding thousands) throughout the hub systems. Northwest, one of the worst offenders, is operating with 15 to 25 percent fewer pilots and copilots than it employed in 2000. The inevitable result is massive crew shortages at the end of each month when Northwest's remaining pilots "time out" and can no longer fly. (According to federal regulations, pilots may not fly more than 100 hours a month.) In the last week of June, a particularly bad month, Northwest canceled more than 1,000 flights.
Regional jets clogging the runways are another huge headache. Flying on one of these puddle jumpers requires you to be a contortionist. But it's what you don't see with RJs that really hurts you. Because they take up as much gate space and airspace as the big jets—but carry just 30 to 100 passengers a flight, compared with as many as 365 in a Boeing 777—they are adding more traffic without getting more people to their destinations. Last year, approximately half of Chicago O'Hare's flights were RJs.
With planes flying near capacity, a delay of a few hours can turn into a 24-hour nightmare. Here's how it works: If a crew has to wait too long, it can "time out," and the flight can't take off until a replacement crew arrives. But if incoming planes are packed and can't accommodate the replacement crew—well, you'd better find a motel. Here's how to avoid the crush of modern commercial aviation.
Watch the calendar. Schedule air travel for the first 20 days of the month. That reduces the chances that your flight will be canceled because the pilot or crew has already hit the maximum monthly limit of 100 hours of work.
Avoid "direct" flights. The only good flight is a nonstop flight. Labeling a flight "direct" is an airline euphemism that means you'll stop at least once, exponentially increasing your chances of being delayed.
Sign up for e-mail alerts. Many airlines offer this service, as do Travelocity and Expedia. Or you can go to flightstats.com, a free service that tracks flights and alerts you when things are going wrong. To have text messages sent to your cell phone alerting you to flight delays, sign up at flightstats.com. You can also find updates at fly.faa.gov/flyfaa/usmap.jsp.
Leave at dawn. Get on the first available flight, preferably on a plane that spent the night at your airport. The biggest factor controlling delays is not where your plane is going, but where the aircraft assigned to your flight is coming from. Always call the airline before you leave for the airport and ask the agent to tell you the aircraft number of the plane assigned for your flight, and then ask for the status of that aircraft tail number. If you're heading to Los Angeles from Miami in two hours but the aircraft assigned to your flight is in Caracas…you're not going. To find out how to talk to a real live agent for any given airline, go to gethuman.com.
Get creative. If, despite using these strategies, you find yourself imprisoned for hours in an aluminum tube on the tarmac, you may have to resort to extreme measures. First, passengers who claim to be sick can be removed from the plane. I'm not advocating fraud here, but I could make a case that "sick and tired of being stuck on the runway" is a recognized medical malady, and I can't imagine any judge failing to sympathize. If you're more inclined to be a citizen journalist than an amateur actor, you can whip out a video camera. It gets the crewmembers' attention (they know they're likely to end up on YouTube, if not CNN), and you're not doing anything illegal. It worked for David Ollila one night in June, after his Comair flight from New York to Detroit was stuck on the ground for nearly four hours. Ollila interviewed the pilot on camera, and the pilot threatened to call the police. "That's an excellent idea," the cameraman responded. Sure enough, the cops came, everyone was let off the plane, and Ollila was cleared of any wrongdoing. Third, there's the lawyer approach: Claim false imprisonment and demand to be released. After being stranded for nearly nine hours on a Northwest flight in 1999, passengers sued and Northwest settled for $7 million. Ever since, airlines have taken the words
false imprisonment very seriously.
Take 'em to court. In what could be the beginning of a trend, a woman named Jane Waun sued Spirit Airlines in small-claims court after the airline canceled her flight out of Detroit, stranding her family. In July, she won a $1,350.75 judgment, which reimbursed her for hotel and meal costs, a lost night at her destination, and the tickets she had to purchase on a different airline.
Take the train. The surefire way to avoid flight delays: Don't fly. On short-haul routes (e.g., Los Angeles to San Diego, or New York to Boston), don't even think of getting on a plane. Go with Amtrak. I recently raced a friend from downtown Manhattan to Washington, D.C. Our destination: 17th and K streets in D.C. We both left at the same time. He went to LaGuardia for the Delta shuttle. I headed for Penn Station and Amtrak's Acela. I beat him by 48 minutes. My fare on Acela: $172. His fare on the shuttle: $276.
Ship your bags. Always ship your bags. Send them via FedEx, UPS, or DHL. Even in the best-case scenario, checking your bags means you'll have to wait 20 to 40 minutes for them to appear on the carousel. Then you'll wait in line for a cab with everyone else who checked a bag. Worst-case scenario: Your checked bags go to Vegas while you go to Portland. And you know what happens to things that go on to Vegas.
Avoid major hubs. Use alternate airports. If you can fly into or out of these secondary airports, you'll reduce your chances of being delayed: Dallas Love Field, instead of Dallas/Fort Worth; Oakland or San José, instead of San Francisco; Houston's Hobby Airport, instead of Bush Intercontinental; and New York's Long Island MacArthur, instead of LaGuardia or Kennedy.
Build more time. Airlines sometimes leave only 60 minutes between connections. That's a recipe for ruining your trip. Choose flights with at least twice that amount of time for your connections and you'll breathe easier.
Peter Greenberg's latest book is The Complete Travel Detective Bible.
Read The 10 Most Delayed Flights in America at the BestLifeOnline.com web site.
© Copyright 2007 Best Life Magazine