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Traveler’s Aid: Delayed Flight Edition

Early morning runLots of studies indicate the thing that we all already know: airline delays are getting worse. While flight delays and cancellations are an unavoidable part of travel today, this edition of “Traveler’s Aid” offers a few suggestions for ways to minimize the possibility that you’ll be held up en route, and ways to minimize the pain of such a delay.

First, some quick tips for delay avoidance:

1. Travel early. Delays compound as a travel day wears on, and then tend to get straightened out overnight, such that in most cases things will start out on time in the morning. (I emphasize “in most cases” because the effects of a winter storm in a city unprepared for it are often worst first thing in the morning.) But the key points here are, first, an early morning flight is far more likely to be on time than one in the afternoon, because the plane is generally there waiting for you as the airport opens, and second, even if your flight is delayed, you stand the best chance of making it where you’re going that day if you’re traveling early.

2. Avoid the hubs. This is easier said than done, these days; airline routes are now such that you almost have to fly through a hub in order to get from point A to point B. But if you have the option to fly direct, do it; the fewer connections you have, the less likely you are to miss them. Similarly, if you can fly through a smaller regional airport, do it; connecting in a smaller airport is always easier than running from one end of Major Hub City Intergalactic Airport to the other.

Okay, but say you’ve done everything right—gotten an early morning flight, left yourself plenty of time to make your connection—and then you find yourself…waiting. The announcement board indicates that your 7.15 am flight is “on time,” despite the fact that it’s now 7.13 am and no one has yet boarded the plane. The gate agents are studiously avoiding eye contact with the crowd. And then the inevitable announcement comes: mechanical delay, air traffic control delay, crew delay, weather delay. Whatever the cause, you’re going nowhere for a while.

Here are a few tips that might help you manage the delay:

1. Don’t take it out on the gate agents. This should go without saying, but it often doesn’t. The gate agents have zero power to get your flight in the air any more quickly. They are simply the bearers of bad news. And they’ll be much more likely to want to help you sort out a problem if you approach them with some sympathy: trust me when I say that they want you to leave just as badly as you want to go.

2. Call for help. On the other hand, it’s quite possible that someone who is not on the scene will be able to do more to help you in the case of a travel delay. Not long ago, I had the first leg of a flight delayed to the extent that it was clear that I would miss my connection, despite all the gate agent’s assurances that I’d make the second flight with no problem. (I was flying through Major Hub City Intergalactic, and knew that there was no way I’d make it from one terminal to the next in the time that would be remaining once we arrived.) So I got on the phone with the airline call center, despite the fact that I was sitting in the airport, and explained my situation; the phone agent happily held a seat on the next connecting flight for me.

This is a particularly important tip in the event your flight is cancelled: rather than waiting in an endless line to get your flight rebooked, try getting on the phone with the airline or your travel agent instead. The more harried the folks on the ground at the scene of the delay become, the more likely you’ll be to get speedier help from someone in a call center across the country.

3. Stay nearby. If it becomes clear that your flight is going to be delayed for more than a few minutes, you may want to go grab a bite to eat or a drink. This is not a bad plan, generally speaking, but you need to be sure that you’ve got as much information as possible about your projected departure. If the delay is due to weather, for instance, or to an air traffic control hold, it’s possible that your flight might be given permission to board and go at a moment’s notice. And once the flight is cleared, the gate agents may not do an airport-wide announcement, but instead simply round up the folks who are still in the gate area and send the flight on its way. So don’t wander too far, and be sure to check back frequently for updates.

4. Keep flexible. It’s possible that there might be another flight going to your destination, or to a destination close enough to yours that it would be worth making the switch. Check with the agents at the gate of this alternate flight to see if you can get on that plane instead. (Needless to say, such a switch will be made much easier if you didn’t check any luggage.)

5. Have a backup plan. Finally, if the delays are bad enough, you may hit a point at which you need to start thinking about your plan B. Is there an alternate means of transportation that can get you where you’re going—a train, perhaps, or a rental car? If not, who needs to be made aware of your delay—your airport transportation, or your hotel? You’ll also need to decide whether there’s a point at which the trip should be cancelled entirely, but be sure to find out from your airline what your options are for obtaining a refund, rescheduling your travel, or reusing the unused portion of your ticket.

Now, it’s your turn: do you have tips for managing travel delays with grace? Leave them in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user Jason Tester.]

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