Q: Friends who have traveled by air recently have told us horror stories about missed connections. One couple missed their connection in Chicago because of a late incoming flight and spent two days at the airport before the airline could find them seats on an onward flight. Is there any way to avoid situations like this or at least make them less likely? What are my rights if I miss a connection or the flight is severely delayed?
A: This is proving to be a miserable year for delays and cancellations. Plane are full to capacity, making it difficult for airlines to find you a seat on another flight should your flight experience problems. Here are some tips to help you avoid inconvenience, and some suggestions about what to do if things fall apart:
1. Avoid connecting flights altogether. They are the flyer's worst enemy. Yes, airlines often charge more for nonstops, but it's worth the extra money.
2. If there is no nonstop flight, then build extra time into your itinerary for the connection. Don't take the connecting flight that gives you just 45 minutes to change planes at a busy airport; instead, ask for a 2 to 4 hour layover to make the connection. You may not be able to do this online, but rather you'll have to call a travel agent or the airline directly. Yes, it will cost you more (airlines charge extra to book over the phone, and travel agents charge too) but it's worth it. Hate longer layovers? Bring a good book. You'll hate spending two days on a cot at O'Hare even more, trust me.
3. Shun chronically late flights. Every domestic US flight is assigned a number from 1 to 10, with 1 meaning that the flight is historically on time between 0 and 10% of the time, and 10 meaning it is on time between 90 and 100% of the time. You can get this data on some airline sites, or call the airline to find it. Some flights are indeed late 100% of the time. Try to book only 9's and 10's.
4. Call your airline to reconfirm that your flight is operating on time (or operating at all). Do this several weeks, several days, and several hours before your flight. I've heard so many stories from readers lately about airlines scrapping flights from their schedules entirely (not just canceling one flight, but the entire route or the entire flight schedule) and not notifying passengers until they got to the airport. I wouldn't rely on having the airline contact you, although if you wish, sure, give them your phone number, email address, and mobile phone number. Just bet your trip on the expectation that they'll call you.
5. Book the first flight of the day. Just as your doctor or dentist will see you on time if you're the first appointment, first of the day flights tend to be on time as well.
6. Know beforehand what your alternatives are on other airlines if you miss your connection or your initial outbound flight is cancelled or delayed. Some airlines will put you on a competitor's next flight out if the "flight irregularity" (as they're called in airlne-speak) was within their control (a mechanical problem, for instance)., others won't. If you fly frequently, you might want to carry a printed or PDA copy of the Official Airline Guide ( www.oag.com) so you can propose alternate flights on the spot.
7. If your flight is cancelled or delayed, get in line with the other unfortunates, but while waiting call the airline on your mobile phone to make other arrangements. By the time you get to the front of the line at the check in desk all the alternative seats may be booked.
8. Prepare for the worst. If all else fails, make sure that you (and your kids, if any) have books, games, and other distractions in your carryon luggage. Many airlines sell day passes to their club lounges, a more attractive alternative than sitting at the gate listening to those awful TV and PA broadcasts.
9. If you're stranded at the airport overnight, ask for a hotel room, meals, and transportation nicely (and out of earshot of other passengers). Airlines are not required to provide you with these amenities, and they'll do so only out of the kindness of their hearts on a first come basis. They may only have a few rooms to hand out if dozens of flights are cancelled, and asking privately and politely is the best way to snag one.
10. Know your rights. If you are heading out to wedding or other scheduled event (meeting, funeral, whatever), and you're going to miss it entirely because your flight outbound flight is cancelled or delayed, even if you have a non-refundable ticket the airline is required to refund you in full. You do not have to take whatever flight the airline gives you.