Air Travel Triage: Save Your Flight–And Your Sanity.

Just did a “pleasure” (for a guy who flies 170 days a year, that’s a stretch) trip to a major west coast city. Returning home, I was all set to board my flight when the earlier flight–still at its gate–was declared “out of service for maintenance.”

Oh no: passenger stampede.

That’s right, now everyone wanted to get on my flight–the next available–probably to protect their downline connection or to keep a tight schedule at their destination. Being standby myself, or even as a confirmed passenger, this is a major problem. So, now what?

Here’s where you can and must do travel triage if only to save your sanity, never mind your trip. Think.

You must plan ahead, and use your head:

Be aware of what’s going on. Sounds simple, but you’d be amazed at how many airline passengers, when faced with a major snafu such as a cancelled flight or weather divert, simply draw a blank: what next?

Here’s where awareness is crucial: I saw another aircraft being towed to the gate of the maintenance-cancelled flight. Then I heard the agents at that gate make a brief announcement, “We have located a new aircraft for this flight.”

Still, the stampede was on to the gate of the next flight.

Again, be aware of what’s going on: the next flight’s aircraft was at the gate, but you could clearly see that there were still bags coming out of the cargo hold. They were still unloading cargo from the inbound flight.

By contrast, the replacement aircraft being towed to the previous gate was completely empty, having been parked on the ramp or in a hangar. Which aircraft would be ready to depart sooner?

If you have a downline connection, that fact is key and you need to know this, you will know this, if you’re thinking and observing.

Still, if you must get on the next flight, you must change your boarding pass. Want to stand in the slowly creeping line to rebook? Or worse, as happens with some airports, be sent back outside of security to the ticket counter to rebook?

What’s the alternative?

Do you have the airline rebooking number? Not the airline’s toll-free number, the rebooking number. There’s a difference and you’ll need to find that number before you travel. It’s likely on the airline’s website, but if you can’t find it–call their regular toll-free number. Of course, this will be a frustrating exercise in phone tree navigation at exactly the wrong time if you’re trying to rebook, wasting precious minutes as others grab the few available standby seats ahead of you. So do it ahead of time and pre-program the number into your cell phone.

Then forget about the line–just call, and when you do, here’s another piece of crucial information: what are the departure times and flight numbers of follow-on flights? Tell them what you want–and decide on that before they answer.

A monitor gives you the best realtime information–and there are a dozen on-line services that will display the schedule on you phone or PDA for free.

Don’t hunt for a monitor, which will not likely be near whatever line you need to stand in for a new boarding pass–either write down the list of flights for the day ahead of time (so last century, really), or pre-program a flight monitor into your handheld device (welcome to the new millenium!).

Then you can call the rebooking number and specify exactly what you need without playing twenty questions with the reservations agent.

That way, you can accomplish whatever data changes must be made in order to receive a new boarding pass if you must change flights without waiting in line. Okay, you might do this while waiting in line just to be sure you’re not overlooked, but when you do reach that harried and overworked agent handling the long snaky line of irate passengers, all he or she has to do is print your new boarding pass and hand it to you. “Next in line please . . .”

No matter what, be aware of what’s going on. I quietly moved over to the gate of the maintenance-delayed flight, requested a seat on it and was given a boarding pass. Several other passengers did the same and discovered that thanks to the stampede on the initial announcement that “this aircraft is out of service,” this replacement plane would now be way less than full, with more room for the rest of us to spread out.

By contrast, at the next flight, the only seats to be had were middle seats and every seat on the plane would be full. Plus, whether those refugees from our flight knew it or not, their luggage would NOT be on their flight–it would still be on the original. Meaning their checked baggage would be arriving when we did–not when they did. Care to wait for your bags? Or, do you trust that they’ll be waiting for you at baggage claim when you get there?

Of course, unlike in this case, there may not be a replacement aircraft available. Which makes it all the more crucial that you have the re-booking number and flight schedule info: there are few standby seats on any flight these days. What you accomplish on the phone will grab you a seat even before those in line ahead of you could get one from the agent.

When we pushed back, I glanced at the refugee flight next door: still loading cargo. In essence, the passengers who fled to the new gate really would have been better off sticking with the original plan, plus they wouldn’t have been sitting in a crammed-full jet waiting to push back. And if they were really astute, they’d be dismayed to watch us push back ahead of them, with their checked bags on board, to arrive ahead of them.

So much for connections, and for expediting their travel. All because they weren’t aware and didn’t pre-plan their trip with all of the assets available at their fingertips:

1. Observe and listen at the gate and out the window of the terminal.

2. Have access to current schedules and flight numbers on a PDA or even a hard copy list.

3. Have the re-booking phone number available and use it to avoid lines and to speed whatever reservations changes you might need as quickly as possible.

That’s travel triage, but also, that’s common sense, something that sadly, seems to be in short supply at the airport. If you have the information you need and the assets to employ that information, you will be literally miles ahead of the crowd.

5 Responses to “Air Travel Triage: Save Your Flight–And Your Sanity.”

  1. Great posting as usual. I am going to Hawaii at the end of August and will certainly make use of the info on this post.

    once again thank for all of your great info.

    You know this blog should really be a book :).


  2. You surely are a cunning old dog. But thanks for sharing your tricks.

  3. laurapayette Says:

    I came across your blog about a week ago when it was featured on the WordPress login/homepage. I’m a TCU grad living in Colorado. Your descriptions of places in Ft. Worth bring back memories.

    Good reminders to plan ahead, anticipate the worst, and pay attention in life. I’m a planner, so that works for me, but a lot of people prefer to fly by the seat of their pants and hope things work out. Sometimes they do, but when I’m in the air, I sure hope I have a pilot like you at the controls!

  4. Quick question…how can the bags of those passengers who switched flights be on the replacement plane? I thought bags on any flight had to be double checked against the passenger register, and any bags belonging to a passenger NOT on that plane had to be removed.

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