Saturday, August 24, 2013

Oh @!*$&% - My Flight Is Delayed!!! What Now?

Washington's Columbia River Valley from a 737
If you're traveling by air, one of the most frustrating things is when your flight is delayed or canceled, potentially disrupting your business or vacation plans.  Now, statistically speaking, the chances of a delayed or canceled flight ruining your day are actually pretty low.  Around 80% of flights, give or take, arrive at their destinations on time, and of the 20% or so that are late, many of these delays are relatively minor, on the order of a half an hour or so.  But, if the delay bugaboo does strike, I'll share some tips I've learned over the years after the jump.

The most obvious piece of advice I can give is that if you ABSOLUTELY need to be somewhere for something of critical importance - an important business meeting, a wedding, meeting a cruise ship, etc. - then your best course of action is to play it safe and get to your destination the day before.  That way, if something goes wrong, you still have plenty of options to get to where you need to be on time.  Yes, this involves the extra cost of getting a hotel the night before, but you'll probably have an easier time explaining an extra $150 hotel charge on your expense report than explaining to the boss that you lost a business deal because you couldn't get to the meeting on time.  And let's face it, if you're flying for a business meeting or to catch a cruise, getting up at 4 A.M. to get to the airport for a 6:30 A.M. flight sucks big time.  But if that isn't an option, here's a few tips to keep your day on track.

I also strongly suggest that if you must take a connecting flight, allow yourself plenty of time to make the connection.  Most airlines will sell you connections of as little as 30 or 45 minutes in most domestic airports, and as little as an hour in big international airports like London Heathrow or Frankfurt.  That's insane, if you ask me.  My general rule of thumb is a minimum of 90 minutes to connect domestically, and 3 hours for an international connection (maybe even more than that if you are arriving in the U.S. and connecting to another domestic flight, due to today's customs and immigration delays).  Yes, you might end up dorking around at the airport for a while if nothing goes wrong, but what would you rather have - an hour twiddling your thumbs at the gate, or sleeping on the airport floor overnight when you miss your connection and can't get out for two days?

Step 1 - Know Before your Go

Most delays are due to weather, either at your point of departure or at your point of arrival.  Others can be due to air traffic control (ATC) congestion issues, or mechanical problems.  This should go without saying, but before you even head to the airport, check the status of your departing flight to make sure it is on time.  If it is going to be delayed, and especially if it is going to mess up a connection, get on the phone with the airlines before you even leave home.  You may be able to work out an alternate flight from your couch.  Or, you can try heading for the airport and trying to work something out with the ticket counter.  One piece of advice:  if your flight shows a delay, think twice about sitting at home or the office a little longer before heading to the airport.  Delays can and do magically disappear, and you're SOL if you miss a flight if that happens.  You're generally better off getting to the airport in time for your originally scheduled departure.

Step 2 - Start Planning Alternatives

If a delay is first announced as you are waiting at the gate, start your planning immediately.  Start thinking about other options to get to your destination.  If you have a smartphone, iPad, or laptop with you, free applications such as FlightStats ( can pull up all flights running on your route, along with their on-time status.  The airline's websites can then be used to see which flights have available seats.  If you are flying to your final destination, now is the time to start thinking about alternatives if you need them.  If you are connecting, monitor the time you'll have to make your connection.  My general rule of thumb is that if connecting time at a domestic airport drops below 45 minutes, you're going to have problems, and you'll need to spring into action (note, though, that if the problem is weather or ATC in the connecting city, then chances are all fights in and out will be delayed - so don't automatically assume trouble, and check on the status of your connecting flight first).  HINT: mechanical problems tend to be the most troublesome, because airlines often don't know the seriousness until they start working on it.  As soon as you hear the word "mechanical", don't delay, start looking at options.

Be willing to be flexible and creative as you think about alternatives.  For example, if you are flying to San Francisco, you might have more luck checking flights to Oakland or San Jose.  Or if you're flying to Dallas, check flights to nearby cities like Austin, Houston, Oklahoma City, etc.  Yes, flying to Houston when you need to get to Dallas means renting a car and a 4 hour drive afterwards - but if the alternative is being stuck somewhere for 2 days, with the hotel and meal bills adding up all the while (or a night or two sleeping at the airport), this might be a more palatable deal.

At the end of the day, if you need to reschedule your flight, if you are proactive and can present an alternative to the airline, you are more likely to get a positive result, so some advance planning can really work to your advantage!

Step 3 - Don't Wait - Spring Into Action

As soon as it becomes apparent that you're going to have a problem - either your flight is going to arrive too late to do what you need to do at your destination, or you are going to miss your connection - put your plan into action.  Explain to the gate agent that you are concerned about a connection or that you have to get to your destination by a certain time, and ask if you can be transferred to another flight (with the alternatives you already researched in Step 2 at the ready).  Most airlines will waive change fees or standby fees in the event of delays.  If the gate agent says no or won't cooperate, though - don't panic. You still have the option of calling the 800 number to rebook, or going out of security and trying your luck with the main ticketing agents.  Just because one person won't help doesn't mean nobody will.

Another option in this scenario is to pay the $50 fee for a "day pass" to the airline's lounge, and hang out there (you don't have to be a lounge member or have elite status to buy a day pass).  Number one, it's more comfortable than waiting at the gate - but more importantly, lounge agents also have the ability to rebook flights for you, and there are usually very few people waiting in line at the lounges, so you can get rebooked faster.

Step 4 - If Your Flight is Canceled, It's Not the Apocalypse, But You Have to Think

The mayhem that ensues at the gate area might suggest otherwise, but when a flight is canceled, it's not the end of the world.  But, there are a few things that can make your experience smoother:

A) You are very likely to encounter extremely long lines at either the gate or the ticket counter when you need to rebook.  It's not unusual to have to spend 2-3 hours or more in line, because there are 200 other people that are in the same predicament.  If it's still early enough in the day, whip out your phone and call the 800 customer service number for the airline.  Often times, they can either rebook you on another flight, or at the very least, get something arranged that the agent can immediately ticket once you get to the front of the line.  Or, as noted above, pay the $50 to get in to the airline's lounge, and see if the agents there an help you out.

B) If you luck out and end up in the front of the line (for example, if you've strategically placed yourself near the rebooking counter because you suspect a cancellation is coming), the agent will first tell you what you have been automatically rebooked on.  If that's acceptable to you, then you can just take your tickets and move on.  If it's not, though, now is the time to suggest the alternatives you've researched to the agent.  Agents love prepared passengers, because you're making their job easier, and it gives them more time to focus on passengers that aren't prepared. 

C) If it is late in the day, and it's obvious you're not getting out that night - don't bother standing in line to rebook unless you are near the front of the line.  What's likely to happen is, you will stand in line for 3 hours, get a voucher or discount coupon to a hotel, stand in line with a hundred others to get on the hotel shuttle, get there around 11:30 P.M., and then be told that a shuttle will take you back to the airport at 5 A.M. to catch your new flight and/or wait in line some more.  Instead, engage in some self-help:  call up and reserve a room at a hotel nearby first, then get on the phone with the 800 number to start working out alternatives as you head over to your room.  No, you don't end up with a voucher in this scenario, but while everyone else is waiting in line, you're relaxing in your room having dinner or sleeping.  Or if you never left your home airport, just go back home and do your rebooking from there.

Step 5 - Be Nice

This should go without saying, but when you are in a delayed/canceled situation and need help from the airlines, remain calm and polite, even if the agent on the other end isn't.  It isn't fun for a ticket agent or a call center employee to have to listen to 300 angry people scream and yell about how their vacations are being ruined.  Be nice and be prepared, and you'll make things that much easier for the agent (and if you aren't a jerk, as an added bonus, you might get rewarded with an upgrade or a voucher). 

Step 6 - It Never Hurts to Ask for Compensation

You are normally entitled to compensation in the event of a mechanical delay, but if your delay or cancellation is due to weather or ATC, you are normally entitled to nothing, aside from being rebooked on the next available flight.  But, that doesn't mean you can't try your luck by filing a complaint with the airline.  For example, if you end up spending $150 on a hotel, try submitting the airline's online complaint form to ask for a $150 refund.  You won't get it, but you just might get a voucher for a future flight or some bonus frequent flier miles.

So the next time you find yourself with a delayed or canceled flight, don't despair or panic.  Just follow these 6 steps

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