Airline flight—or root canal?
With all the problems with commercial flying today, the choice isn't so funny. Using a commercial airline is fraught with more challenges and frustrations than ever.
Airlines are abruptly changing course by suspending flights, slapping luggage fees on travelers, raising fuel ticket surcharges, using smaller planes, grounding older planes, and reducing fares.
"Airlines are reducing their schedules and retiring aircraft—everything they can to save fuel," says Christopher Elliott, a consumer advocate and syndicated travel journalist, New York. "More flights are being rescheduled or cancelled. Airlines are cutting routes, especially to the less profitable locations." His prediction is for more rescheduled and cancelled flights. United Airlines, for example, plans to reduce domestic flights by 18% in 2009. That's typical of other airlines' plans, as well.
Consumers should look for more pain. "There are more delays than ever, and I don't see it changing anytime soon," says Elliott. A 2008 report from the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress says delays and cancellations are placing a "significant strain on the U.S. air travel system ... costing both passengers and airlines billions of dollars each year. Air travel delays are at record levels and getting worse," according to the report.
"If you're going to fly, be prepared for a delay or cancellation," says Rhonda Holguin, general manager of Montrose Travel in Montrose, Calif. Heed the old Boy Scouts motto: "Be prepared." It can save you frustration come flight day.
Cancellations can occur because of weather, mechanical problems, or because an airline decides to combine passengers from more than one flight.
Compensation is required by law only when you are "bumped" from an oversold flight. Airlines almost always refuse to pay passengers for financial losses resulting from a delayed flight.
Each airline spells out how it handles canceled flights in a "contract of carriage," found on its Web site. The contract tells you the policy and your rights when your flight is rerouted, delayed, or cancelled. "It will tell you what your limitations are," says Holguin. "If you're not a frequent flyer, print out the contract, read through it, and take it along. Fold it up and tuck it away in your bag."
When choosing your flight, if you're taking more than one flight to your destination and you have a choice of connections, pick the one with the least-congested connecting airport. Always check the amount of time between flights, and ask yourself what will happen if your first flight is delayed. If you don't like the answer, choose another flight.
In addition, Holguin recommends that you check your flight's status before you leave home. "Check it one more time to make sure you've got the most current information," she says. "Call or go online."
If you're going on a cruise, consider leaving a day early if you can afford it. With all the cancellations and delays these days, it will save you anxiety and possibly your cruise. "What's the rush? You're on vacation," says Elliott. "I've talked with people who plan to arrive 45 minutes before their cruise is set to leave. That's not enough time. If you miss it, you're in really big trouble. The cruise lines are very unforgiving."
Check your e-mail and text messages one last time before leaving for the airport.
Arrive as early as possible. Holguin recommends that you're checked in an hour and a half before your flight is scheduled to depart for domestic flights and three hours before your flight is scheduled to depart for international flights.
If there's a last-minute change in the flight schedule, you're there to get in line to talk to the gate agent to find out your options. You can go online to other airline Web sites, or call your travel agent for options with other carriers.
Even if your flight isn't cancelled, if you're late, your seat could be given away to someone who's being accommodated from a cancelled flight. The most effective way to reduce the risk of getting bumped is to get to the airport early.
Plus, if you have bags to check in and you show up late, you may make your flight, but your bag may not.
Initial boarding may go as planned, but if you're on a connecting flight, you might not be home free. If you experience a delay or cancellation or a reroute while on an intermediate flight, get in line and talk to a gate agent. Carry important telephone numbers with you, such as your travels agent's, in case you need help rebooking your flight on another carrier or looking for options before speaking with the gate agent.
If you booked directly with the airline, call it or go to its Web site for other options. "Don't just check the airline you're on," says Holguin. "Check other carriers that fly to your destination." Also, make sure any luggage goes through to your new carrier and flight.
So you've arrived at your destination—but your baggage hasn't.
According to the federal government's Aviation Consumer Protection Division, the airlines track about 98% of the bags and return them to the owners in a few hours. If your bags don't come off the conveyor belt, report it to the airline before you leave the airport. Insist that airline staff fills out a form and give you a copy. If the form doesn't contain the phone number of the individual who filled it out, ask for it. Ask if there will be a charge for delivering the bag—some airlines charge, some don't.
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