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General, last Christmas I was stuck in New York during a snowstorm. My flight got cancelled and I ended spending my entire day waiting in lines and in the airport. Any ideas on how best to avoid this kind of situation?

I like New York in June, how about you?  Sorry, don't mind me, just humming a tune here.  Oh, I suppose I could cobble together a few words.

The north-east of the US (and generally speaking, the north) can be a real hodgepodge of decent weather followed by well, dicey, snowy, sleety, crappy, not so good weather.  This can make travel plans quite erratic.  Often times, esp. if you're flying through the General's least favorite airport on earth, Chicago, you can find yourself in a really bad situation, cancellations, delays and some of the other 10 plagues that seem to descend upon the largest airport in the world in the second city of the United States.

What I am going to suggest here are just a bunch of tips that I've picked up over my years of flying around everywhere. First things first, delays.  Delays happen.  Delays happen because weather happens, because planes have unexpected things go wrong with them, passengers foul up things (like when a passenger becomes rowdy and combative or ..) because of all manner of things, engines falling off wings, air-conditioning systems breaking, etc etc.  The best thing you can do when managing delays is to first realize that it is in the airline's best interest to keep you on the hook.  This is what I like to refer to as the “Charlie Brown and Lucy” football method.  The gate agents make an announcement saying something like “we're delayed and you'll get an update in 10 minutes”.  Then as you're running up to kick the football 10 minutes later, you're greeted with another announcement that it'll be another 10 minutes.

Its at this moment, that I tend to leave the ground staff and go to the air.  Well, that is unless, when having a quick chat with the gate agent, I get a decent answer about what is going on.  The flight crew is on an inbound flight that should land in 5 minutes or the plane is landing shortly (in which case, you can go grab yourself a pop since it takes about 15 minutes or so to turn around a plane, get people off, clean, do a security sweep, etc).  But if you can get this information and in this situation information is key, then you have some bounds on how long your delay is going to be.  If you get a wishy washy answer like, I'm not sure or something equally bad, like, the flight hasn't left Boston yet (meaning that it may be hours), then its time for the airwar.

I don't fool around when it comes to delays.  In some regards, its good to be a king or general (or pretend you're one).  By this I mean, if you fly an airline a lot, they generally tend to be a bit more responsive but this can work even if you're just a lowly normal fare, no status, customer.  Call the 1-800 number for the airline's customer service (typically this is in the ticket jacket that comes with your boarding pass, if you don't have one, the gate agent should have one..) and ask them about the status of the flight.  If it is a situation where the plane that you're waiting on is still at the airport in Boston or London or whatnot and you already know you're going to be delayed by more than an hour or two, then I get my flights changed on the phone.  No point waiting in line at the customer service desk, you know the one, staffed by two people that has a line longer than the kids outside of the next Harry Potter book release.  Get space on the next flight and then ask the gate agent (who isn't nearly as busy) to print you out a new boarding pass.  If the entire airport, however, is bunged up.  The thing to do is rebook your flights for another day (this is the drastic measure though).

Nine times out of ten, in my experience, when a serious weather related screw up causes mayhem at your airport, your fastest reprieve will be to get your changes done over the phone.  I have been lucky in that many of my itineraries have been fairly change tolerant (i.e. I had a job that was okay with me missing a day or so, esp. if say, I couldn't fly out of wherever because there was 5 feet of snow or a baggage handler strike, etc).  Its at that point, you need to decide whether or not its worth accidentally booking a flight for the next day (or day after, etc) when you might be able to get out on your original itinerary.  Again, I typically don't mess around.  I change my flight early because I don't like sitting around in airports and in those kinds of situations, time is a serious factor.  The earlier you rebook (like the next day after a snow storm) the more likely you are to get back to wherever you're headed.  If you wait and your flight gets cancelled, you have to scramble with everyone else to be rebooked the next day anyway.  Only this time, you're in the thick of it with everyone and its first come, first served (unless you're an elite and then they really try to accommodate, membership having its privileges and all that).

Generally speaking, airlines do have some of the worst customer service.  The whole football trick is to generally keep, you, the unruly customer from getting too upset over the fact that your 45 minute flight to wherever has been delayed by over an hour because the original pilot showed up drunk.  Sometimes, they're right to say it'll only be 10 minutes because they're able to find a backup to take the flight (do note this is a contrived example) and sometimes they don't find anyone and they have to cancel it outright.  When it comes to this or anything like this, the last thing they want is passengers armed with a lot of information.  If everyone just attmepted to rebook their flights instead of toughing it out at the airport during weather delays, the airline would be in trouble.  I'm not saying that you tough it out though, I'm just saying that it isn't in the airline's best interests for you to be informed about the situation your flight is in.  So, you need to be proactive or be prepared to spend a night in the airport.

makena17 says:
This is a very good tip. The phone works magic!
Posted on: Oct 02, 2008
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