Airport Trauma

Yesterday was a pleasant day in Pittsburgh – partly cloudy and chilly, but fine weather. I had no reason to suspect any diffculties at the airport – except for the fact that there are ALWAYS difficuties at the airport. My parents dropped me off and I went to a Delta kiosk to check in – nothing. So, I asked a Delta employee to help me and when I mentioned JFK, she sighed and told me my flight was cancelled and I needed to wait in line to speak with a ticket agent. WHAT?!? Apparently, it was “weather-related”, which automatically gives the airline an out to take zero responsibility for my hassle. After the long back and forth with the rep at the ticket counter about my “options”… which were none…I took a seat on the 6am flight this morning.

Of course, this morning, there was a delay…the “crew” had to “rest,” and so all of the tired travelers had to wait until they were ready to fly.

People have work, school, and appointments to get to, so when the airlines and airports use the “weather” excuse, it gets very frustrating. We all know that JFK is too crowded and there are too many airplanes and too few runways, so unless every single detail went smoothly and perfectly, there is bound to be delays. When there is any weather at all – cancellations begin to happen. Can anything be done if your flight is canceled or your luggage lost? Yes – you can learn how to better navigate the system before hopping in the cab to the airport. Here’s a crash course in surviving the chaos of airline travel.

Scenario 1 – delayed/canceled flight
A 30-minute delay has stretched into hours. Time to look for another option.


The odds: Since January, airlines have canceled more than 90,000 flights. And just 73% of arrivals in the past year have been on time.

The plan: There are no federal regulations governing how airlines should help passengers affected by delayed flights, so you should take matters into your own hands. Dial the airline’s customer service number while you’re in line to change your ticket; you might find an open seat before you reach the counter. Another option is to head to the frequent-flier lounge. Even if you’re not a member, you can buy a one-day pass and make use of the less harried lounge staff to rebook your trip.

Tips and tools
1. Get a wireless card for your laptop. If your trip gets messy, you won’t have to track down a Wi-Fi hotspot.
2. Don’t trust the airlines. Flightaware.com tracks the locations of all planes, so you’ll likely know more than the flight attendants
3. MobileCierge’s “mobile personal assistants” are available 24 hours a day and can secure last-minute reservations on all major airlines. The cost is just $8 a month.

Scenario 2 – mishandled baggage
You packed it, they tagged it, but it didn’t show up on the other end of your trip. You can’t show up in the conference room tomorrow in the jeans you wore on the plane. Now what?

The odds: From January to June, passengers filed more than 2.2 million lost baggage reports – up 30% from the same period in 2006.

The plan: Chances are you won’t be the only angry person in line at the claim counter. Call the airline while you wait. You should still wait in line to fill out a claim form, and be sure to get a copy of it, along with an employee’s name and a phone number to follow up. The DOT’s Consumer Protection Division recommends negotiating a cash advance if you’re missing essential items that you need immediately. Most carriers authorize employees to give some money at the airport for emergency purchases. If your bags are lost for good, the airline will pay as much as $3,000 for your items, but you’ll have to prove their value.

Tips and tools
Don’t call the airlines’ main numbers; instead, print and save this list to speak directly to the baggage departments:
-American: 800-535-5225
-Continental: 800-335-2247
-Delta: 800-325-8224
-Northwest: 800-745-9798
-United: 800-221-6903

Scenario 3 – oversold flight
You would think that having a ticket means that you would be guaranteed a seat – not always the case. Too many people checked in for an overbooked flight, and we all know the airlines allow it to happen and then play some sick game with all of us at the gate.

The odds: Smaller than you might expect, given that airlines routinely oversell flights to compensate for no-shows. From January to June, just a bit more than one passenger per 10,000 was bumped involuntarily. But the number did grow by 13 percent compared with last year’s figures.

The plan: Negotiate on the spot. You have the right to ask for a full refund if you don’t want to accept the standard offer of a free trip in the future. You’re also entitled to as much as $400 if the airline can’t get you another flight or the substitute flight arrives more than two hours later than your original itinerary. If you have your laptop, find out when other carriers are flying to your destination; when you ask to have your ticket endorsed over to another airline, you’ll already know which flight you want.

Tips and tools
1. Before booking your flight, check the airline’s recent oversales rankings (airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/reports) to see which airlines are the worst at overbooking
2. Bumptracker.com takes it up a notch – detailing overbooked routes for each airline, the number of passengers bumped per flight, and the compensation offered.
3. Book on JetBlue – they do not overbook. At all. In the unlikely event that you are bumped involuntarily, JetBlue is very generous: they will give you $1,000 for your trouble.

Scenario 4 – tarmac limbo
You’ve boarded the plane, seat belts are on, the plane has pulled away from the gate, and… nothing. Just waiting.

The odds: In June alone, more than 2,000 flights kept passengers waiting on the tarmac for more than two hours.

The plan: You don’t have a great number of options if you’re already stuck. In the wake of JetBlue’s pathetic response to the winter storm that shut down airports in the Northeast in February – and stranded hundreds of passengers in planes for as long as 11 hours – people have been discussing the issue, but not much has improved.
While you can’t avoid it, you can complain – loudly – and demand compensation after the fact. Options for complaints include:
-Posting on highly visible travel forums like TripAdvisor and FlyerTalk
-e-mailing the airline’s customer service department
-filing a complaint with the DOT (airconsumer@dot.gov)
-using networking sites, such as LinkedIn, to find higher-level airline executives to contact

Tips and tools
If nothing works, you can do what Continental passengers did in July after waiting five hours in a hot plane: Organize a mutiny. They clapped and banged on the overhead bins until they frightened the pilot and he called the police. Just don’t be surprised if you’re stuck in a questioning room for a longer period of time afterwards.
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