Don't set yourself up for air travel failure
By George Hobica
Recently, I read a blog posting about a series of nightmarish airline travel events. My friend Jonathan sent me the link, suggesting I skip to the bottom of the 2000-word tale of woe to get to the denouement. It started out like this: “I booked an outbound 7 a.m. flight from Milwaukee to San Jose with a connection in Minneapolis. The scheduled 11:30 a.m. arrival would allow an early afternoon client meeting….”
Whoa. That’s when I stopped reading. I knew where this was going and I just couldn’t watch.
You can already guess what happened (okay, I peeked). Yep, he didn’t make his connecting flight and he didn’t make his client meeting. He didn’t even make his client dinner. And of course, he was hopping mad, blaming the airline, which had cancelled his flight (it “said”) because of thunderstorm activity (it is summer, after all, prime thunderstorm season).
But wait a minute. This guy scheduled (what I assume was) an important business meeting (had to be important, otherwise he would have conducted business over the phone, right?) and arranged his flight to arrive an hour or two before he had to hit the ground running? Why, why, why?
Now I don’t know about you, but for me, there are two kinds of business meetings. One is the kind that’s important enough to do face-to-face, and the other is the not so important kind, the kind you can do over video conferencing or by phone. Or, quite frankly, not do at all.
I don’t do very many of the first kind, but boy, when I do, I make really sure that I arrive in plenty of time And I mean plenty. I am not going to travel all that way for naught.
Not too long ago, I had a very important lunch meeting in Dallas. I had been trying to nail down this guy’s schedule for months. Heck, I had been trying to get him to return my calls for months. Now, I don’t have any friends in Dallas, and I don’t particularly love sleeping in a strange bed in Dallas or elsewhere, but I arrived the night before. Sure, I could have flown in from New York that day, and returned that same night, but why would I risk it? And even if I had flown in the same day, I sure as peaches would not have taken a connecting flight. In summer? Connecting through the Midwest? (Read the Wikipedia “thunderstorm” article if you don’t know what I’m getting at).
At this point, I can just see the guy who posted under my USA Today column a few years back calling me a “shill” for the airlines (that’s the column where I wrote that airline travel “works” more often than it “fails”). His fingers are twitching. I know exactly what he’s going to write. Something like this: “It’s the responsibility of the airlines to deliver the product we paid for! We should NOT have to arrive a day early for a meeting that the airline promised/contracted/pledged to get us to in plenty of time! Why do WE need to be the ones accommodating the ….”
OK, point taken. But you can keep on thinking that way all the way to your next missed meeting. Thunderstorms happen. Other stuff happens. Nothing, no one is perfect, so why do we expect every flight to go like clockwork (although as I pointed out in the above-mentioned column, all of my recent flights have gone like clockwork)?
Look, I am not blaming the victim here. But just as I would advise a friend not to walk alone late at night along Copacabana wearing her Tiffany diamond tiara, I advise you, dear air traveler, to not set yourself up for failure. So some advice, which you can take or leave:
--Don’t play fast and loose with the clock. I don’t care if it’s an important meeting, a funeral, a wedding, or you’re catching a cruise, but don’t plan to arrive a couple of hours before whatever it is begins. Hotel rooms are cheap these days. Rent one and arrive the night before. Catch up with old friends. Make some new ones.
--Don’t take connecting flights. In the case of the blogger whose tale of woe inspired this month’s column, why didn’t he drive to Chicago and take a nonstop flight? (Please don’t tell me that frequent flyer miles were involved.) Or fly nonstop from Milwaukee to San Francisco and drive south? I’ll take Amtrak or the BoltBus before I connect, or drive to the nearest airport with nonstop service. I’m not kidding.
--If you MUST take connecting flights, give yourself a huge amount of connecting time, especially when changing terminals at a busy airport like New York's JFK or changing from a domestic to an international flight. Four hours is an absolute minimum.
--Arrive at the airport super early. I suggested this on my blog at Airfarewatchdog.com a while back and some wiseacre wrote, “What, is this 1988? Is that the best advice you can give?” See, sir, it sometimes works like this: arrive three hours early (bring good book or work on laptop). Original flight severely delayed or cancelled. Airline puts you on earlier flight leaving in 10 minutes. Arrive at Uncle Harry’s funeral in time. Aunt Harriett grateful, remembers you in will.
--Don't trust delay alerts. If the airline says your flight will be delayed for an hour, either by email alert or at the gate, stick by the gate for the original departure time anyway. Delayed flights have a nasty habit of becoming suddenly un-delayed and will leave without you.
Trust me, all this works. Not only will you increase your chances of showing up for whatever it was you were flying to show up for, but you’ll arrive much, much less stressed out.