Summer Air Travel: 3 Things You Need To Know.


You’re traveling by air this summer? Good. But there are a few things you should know and be sure of BEFORE you get to the airport. And, of course, some shortcuts and time-savers and more things you should be aware of once you get to the airport to avoid an ugly surprise on check-in.

Because it’s not enough to just show up on time any more. In fact, without attending to the things I list below, you’re really gambling with your trip and whatever you’d planned at your destination. Airlines typically have higher load factors in the summer, which means fewer seats available on every jet, and this summer has started with record-breaking crowds vying for seats.

Combine that with tight customer service staffing and you have the makings of a travel headache–which is preventable. Read on.

1. Get your seat. Yes, I know: you booked your flight. That’s not the same thing as having a seat. Made your reservation on-line? Be sure there is a specific seat listed–and check again 48 hours prior to departure. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been at the gate, trying to look inconspicuous, as an agent tries to explain to a passenger that no, they don’t have a seat assignment–and the flight is overbooked. Often, when reservations are made way in advance, there’s isn’t a specific seat listed–or between “way in advance” and the day of travel, the seat assignment disappears. To prevent that: print your boarding pass at home with the seat assignment–don’t wait until airport check-in. If you don’t see a seat assignment on your on-line boarding pass–get on-line and reserve a seat, even if you have to call the airline’s toll free number to do so.

2. Know your status. That is, are you protected from cancellations or delays? If you have a deadline at your destination–say, a time sensitive event (wedding, graduation, business meeting, etc) or follow-on reservations (a resort or cruise booking, or flight on another carrier), what  protection do you have in the event of a delay or cancellation?

Be aware that most airlines offer compensation or modified travel in the event of situations within their control (say, flight cancellations or mechanical delays), but most people don’t seem to know that airlines and federal regulations do not stipulate any accommodation for weather-related delays or cancellations. Thunderstorms at a major hub, in summer–what are the chances? Pretty darn good, unfortunately. And along with rain, hail, and damaging winds, storms usually bring delays, cancellations and misconnects.

Are you prepared to sleep on the floor of the terminal if weather delays you inbound and the last flight of the day to your destination has already departed? Don’t plan tight connections–or in my opinion, any connections to the last flight of the day, for exactly that reason. But if you must, be prepared to find an airport hotel on your own or, sleep in the terminal. Ugh.

One further note about “knowing your status,” and this is important: did you buy your ticket from an online source other than the airline itself? If so, read the “conditions of carriage” before you agree to the purchase of a ticket: many of the larger online travel sites sell bargain basement seats–but they are for a specific flight, with no recourse if you miss the flight. In other words, the deeply discounted seat does not come with any airline follow-on obligation–that’s how the online site got the cheap pricetag they sold you on. But again, if you misconnect for any reason, your travel is over.

No “stand-by” on the next flight or travel at another time or date. You agreed to buy a particular seat on a particular day and if you’re not in that seat when the plane departs, you have no further recourse with the airline–and good luck with the online agency you booked your travel through.

In both of these cases: trip insurance. It’s not that expensive and may be your only way to protect yourself from large out-of-pocket expenses due to missed bookings and events at your destination, or overnight delays enroute.

3. Damage control: when things start to go haywire due to delays, weather, cancellations or diversions, you need to act immediately. Before you leave home, do two simple things to ensure that you’re first in line when it comes to salvaging your travel plans.

First, sign up for whatever notification app your airline offers. Not only will this automatic function give you an immediate heads-up on your assigned gate and departure time via text message or email, many major airlines will also notify you of a cancellation or significant departure or arrival delay long before the delay appears on monitors in the terminal.

Why is that important? The advanced notice will allow you to find the next available flight to your destination and then pursue a confirmed seat before your fellow passengers even know there’s a reason to change. First come, first served when it comes to accommodating passengers from a cancelled flight.

Which brings us to the second must-do: pre-program the airline’s re-booking number into your phone for quick access. The re-booking number is NOT the same as the reservations or flight information phone numbers. Find it on your airline’s website or call their toll-free number and ask for it, then keep it handy on your trip. The alternative to calling the re-booking number is to stand in a long line of irritated passengers waiting for a few agents to fix things one at a time. Skip that–get on the re-booking line at the first sign of trouble.

Want to play Superman? Turn your cell phone on as soon as allowed after landing. You’ll be notified by text or email of any cancellation on your itinerary–then you can call the re-booking number on taxi-in and start damage control to save your trip. Same goes for the hours before your origination–keep listening for the text alert regarding your flight. Even if things go well, you’ll want to know what gate you’re scheduled to depart from. In all cases, have your reservation info handy for re-booking–an agent on the phone or face-to-face can access your itinerary instantly if you can provide the record identifier (usually a series of letters and/or numbers) on first contact.

It’s going to be a busy summer for air travel this year, with record crowds and limited customer service options in the case of weather-related delays. But these three simple steps will put you well ahead of the crowd all rushing to rebook flights or deal with a delay. Secure your seat, know your options, stay informed and be ready to rebook.

Number one above–seat assignment–is even more crucial if you’re traveling with others and want or need to sit together. Number two, know your passenger status and your options. And finally, line up your damage control options and beat the rush to re-book or make changes as the situation develops.

Once you’re on board and we’re off the gate, your work is done and I’ll take care of the rest of the flight. And as I say after every welcoming P.A., “Sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.”

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8 Responses to “Summer Air Travel: 3 Things You Need To Know.”

  1. Oh, Yes!! Some very excellent points. Funny/Strange, but I often read blog notes from pilots and/or FAs who commute. In earlier times, their basic commuting plan, Plan A, worked about 95% of the time. In these times, with reduced seat capacity and signifignently higher load factors on nearly all routes, the commuting professionals also have plans B, C, D, E and Oh, F! They also have a thorough understanding of their rights and entitlements. The Seriously Smart paid-fare flyer will also have multiple plans, yes several and will know their options before they board. While tight connections may work well when the system is greased and the weather is perfect, the potential for screw-ups is always present. Smart flyers have alternate plans for every link, know that stuff happens and yes, buy tickets in fare classes that give them some options. That least-cost flight from A to B may be a real bargain if is a non-stop. If one needs other flights and connections to reach point A, before the long flight to point B, have some options, folks! If it is a mult-link schedule, give yourself some safe space time, even if it means an extended layover as the major departure point. If the Big Flight can fly, Yes, they will fly without you! In other words, if you are flying from Slippery Rock to Frankfurt, via JFK, the trans-Atlantic flight will probably depart close to on time. If you have three segments just to get to JFK, there is a safe bet that something WILL go wrong. Allow extra time, even if it means a h/motel night and/or some waiting time near JFK. If not, you may swim back to Slippery Rock, your vacation or trips essentially lost and with damn little recourse. For the casual flyer on a big vacation trip, that travel insurance, typically ~~ 3% – 10% of cost(?) is worth every cent. Know the rules and understand the coverage before you buy and fly, but it is a good investment.
    With a laugh, if your goal is to get from A to B, plan to do exactly that. If the goad is to get bumped and pocket the Inconvenience vouchers for later Mileage runs and to enhance your FF program’s miles, the planning is very different. When I fly, I just want to get there. Unless one is driving at the pointy end, airplanes are not fun, far too crowded, often filthy beyond belief. Every convenience will cost a bit more, even safe drinking water on the plane. Know the rules, have plans B, C, D, at-hand and, did I mention knowing the rules? IN the end, if yoour trip can be done on the ground and you have the time, don’t fly! If you must fly, know the rules and procedures and leave some fudge time. Mr. Murphy is the airlines’ favorite consultant; something will go wrong.
    Great post, Chris and I agree with 99% of the ideas. Thanks. -C.

    • Yeah, every time I have to deadhead I get depressed about the cattle car experience that it’s become. Could probably write a blog about that: defensive in-flight passenger tactics–wear your earbuds even if they’re not connected to anything, it’ll keep people from making idle chitchat.

      Actually though, I use earplugs in the back–same effect, but more importantly, they reduce the overall stress of a trip. There’s more noise and vibration than you think and they contribute to the fatigue level of a trip. Try it on a flight–you’ll notice the difference in your jetlag and fatigue level, especially on a long flight.

      • Yup! I agree 100%. **After** the mandatory safety lecture, place the plugs and check-out, at last to 75%. As a deadheader, you know that the Back of The Bus is NOT fun. Plugs, an eye shade and the ability to snooze while upright are travel assets. Still, it is nothing more than fast transporation. Very often the environment resembles an interstate bus – read Greyhound. When was the last time anyone was served cocktails or a hot, enroute meal on a bus? With a <> That interstate BUS might be a better deal. At least for trips of 400-600 miles, an overnight red-eye on a simple bus is ~25% the cost of flying. No frills, but great leg room for all seats. No meals, not even beverages or water: Bring your own and screw the 3 Oz. limit or having to buy after the security check. For trips of up to 12 hours, an ordinary interstate BUS is not a bad idea… A basic bus can also work for much longer trips, but a serious sleep stop, much as the (airplane) crews do is not a bad idea. If one is in a rush, fly and suffer. If one has the time, take a bus or train or even drive. It is a LOT more fun. -Craig.

      • I hear ya. But check this out, fast forward to 1:40 where he’s ranting about air travel–pretty funny (“And nobody’s happy”) perspective on what’s good, bad, or under-appreciated. Still, though, I hate flying in back. Had to deadhead to JFK and that was an endurance contest–did the NYT Sunday cross; told myself 3:30, just 3:30.

        OTOH, the metroliner trains between DC, Philly and NYC: nice ride, legroom–there’s a low stress way to go. Not cheap, but worth it.

        Otherwise, within 300 miles, I’m driving.

  2. Thanks, Chris. With chuckles, I enjoyed your comments and the (1:40+) link. I agree with the 300 mile thing and generally extend it to 500. My most frequent trips are PDX (or EUG) to SFO or LAX, at up to 988 miles. Even though the 900+ to LA is a bitch, I’d still rather drive. Dead ear buds is brilliant. I usually use foam plugs to protect what little hearing remains. Flying is not the social even t that it was 40+ years ago and I do not need to hear about Mildred’s kids of best cookie recipe. I do not insert them until the gear and flaps are up (think safety) but otherwise, they stay in. If Mildred wants to chat, I point to the plugs and go back to a good book. Unfortunatley, I have this thing about visiting Europe once or twice a year. I LIKE it, but I’ve yet to find a way to drive the trip. Good ear plugs, a good book, lots of water, minimal food and booze gets me there in pretty good shape. Once again on tera firma, I can eat and drink as I wish. Flying serves a purpose, but unless one spends into five figures, it is not a five-star experience. The world before that suce door is different and I appreciate that. Working professionals are working – not looking for the next whatever thrill. Let’s also not forget the numbers. In the late, pre-jet days a load of 70-80 souls was large. It was expensive and the FA:seat ratio was huge, perhaps 1:20 or even less. Today, it is more like 1:40-50 and – Oh screw it, you know where its going. I too would rather drive whenever possible. FOr trips of less than 1000 miles, the total time devoted to travel is usually less and I’m not subjected to some TSA thug checking the size and pisition of my tender parts. Your blog is fun reading, Chris, always. Perhaps a but unusual at times, but you are a lit professor as well. It goes with the territory. Thanks!
    -Craig

    • “Perhaps a bit unusual at times, but you are a lit professor as well. It goes with the territory. Thanks!…”

      LOL!! Cedarglen…you’re the best! :))))

  3. Jim Loomis Says:

    Following your advice, and in preparation for a couple of upcoming internationaI flights, I emailed American’s customer service department and asked for their re-booking number. They replied promptly, but the phone number they gave me is the number for ordinary reservations. Is the re-booking number a big secret? Or is it really the same as the standard reseervations number?

    • It’s not a secret–they have little notepads with the number at the gate and it’s NOT the 800 433-7300 main number. Ask for it at your departure gate.

      International might be different . . .

       Chris

      Sent from my iPhone, so please pardon the typos.

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