After September 11th, Americans faced a new reality of airline travel: stepped up security searches, carry-on baggage limits and silly regulations became the norm. Over time, we adapted to the “new normal” of flying and are back in the air again in record numbers which is creating a whole new set of problems.
When passenger levels were waning, local airport authorities like those in Los Angeles and San Francisco put off plans to expand capacity and build new gates. Facing bankruptcy or near-bankruptcy, U.S. airlines put off investments in new aircraft and sought to maximize revenue with the planes they already had, not counting on travelers wanting back in the air so quickly.
In the airline business, it seems, the rules of supply and demand have been shattered apart by these two externalities – no one flying to everyone on board – to the point where the system is near a breaking point. These days, too many people are trying to get on too few planes, and it’s not pretty.
While activists were lobbying Congress for a Passenger’s Bill of Rights, the nation learned of the most tragic victim of the airways woes: Carol Gotbaum. On her way to Tucson, Arizona to check into a treatment clinic, Gotbaum was denied boarding onto her connecting flight, got irate and was taken into custody by airport police, where she died of asphyxiation apparently trying to get out of her handcuffs.
Gotbaum’s case, while extreme, was not the result of anything out-of-the-ordinary for flyers. Every day across the country, Americans are subject to cancellations, overbookings and denied boardings leading to a sense that flying can kill, even when the plane takes off and lands safely.
Flying doesn’t have to be a dreadful experience, but it takes two to tango in today’s airline roulette – passengers as well as the airlines themselves. And if you follow a few simple rules, your experience will be much better. So here’s my guide, culled from years of travel and a few friends in the business:
1) Know your rights. When an airline cancels a flight or changes a schedule, you as a passenger have certain rights. Know about “Rule 240” and use it liberally. When an airline changes or cancels a flight due to something within their own control – operations, mechanical problems or labor strife – they’re obligated to take care of their passengers with everything from meal vouchers to hotel accommodation to monetary compensation or ground transportation. If a schedule change occurs before you take off, you can usually use Rule 240 to choose the flights of your choice or to get a refund from the airline entirely – even on a non-refundable ticket. If you are denied compensation, ask, ask again until it is given.
Your rights, however, are limited to a degree. Officially, most airline contracts of carriage state that their only obligation is to get you from Point A to Point B – so accept this limitation before losing your cool as you fly through Charlotte on your way from L.A. to Newark.
2) Know your responsibilities. If the airline tells you to show up early for a flight, do so. If they tell you that you cannot check luggage after 45 minutes before flight, don’t push your luck.
If you want to be guaranteed a seat on a plane, better to get a seat assignment before check-in, because those without a seat assignment will be the most likely to be denied boarding in the case of an overbooked flight.
3) Be flexible. Sometimes the easiest way to get from Point A to Point B on a plane is not a direct line. If a connecting flight through Chicago is cancelled, check to see if Denver, San Francisco or Washington are viable alternatives. Last year, returning from holiday with my family in Southern Virginia, my travel plans got messed up when Denver International Airport shut down entirely. I was supposed to connect from Norfolk to Washington Dulles to Denver to Burbank. Knowing there was weather in Denver, I went to the airport early and asked to stand by on an earlier flight to Dulles. Because of weather in Denver, Dulles was a mad-house, but I convinced the airline to let me try to stand by on any flight to Los Angeles or San Francisco that was available. Once I arrived in San Francisco, I found someone to take care of getting me a boarding pass to Burbank.
During irregular operations, airlines are usually taking care of more than just one person and your trip is not the most important thing in the world to the agent you’re speaking to. Be creative and proactive in offering alternatives and you will be more likely to get what you desire: To your destination quickly.
4) Remember the Golden Rule. As children we are taught to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves, and guess what? It applies to us even as adults especially when flying. When a flight is overbooked or worse yet cancelled, the airlines’ customer service representative is faced with handling dozens if not hundreds of passengers whose plans have gone awry. Human nature leads most passengers to get mad and try to get even, but surly passengers lead to surly gate agents and sometimes worse. Try killing them with kindness and see how kind the agent can be in response. Trust me, this works!
While the nation’s airports and airlines have a long way to go to create capacity to meet demand, we should not be more afraid of airport gate agents than we are of Islamo-fascists. Most airline nightmares can be avoided if you learn to play the airline game: Know your rights, know your responsibilities, be flexible and follow the Golden Rule.