The extra fees for talking to a human, eating food, checking your bags, or flying your dog continue unabated at the airlines. And doesn't it seem like every time an airline giveth (Delta eliminating its fuel surcharge on award fares, and reducing phone reservation fees) it also taketh away ("aligning" its second checked bag fees with Northwest's $50 charge, and increasing the in-cabin pet fee to $300 round-trip)?

Optimists that we are, we continue to look for the bright spots in airline policy. That's why Airfarewatchdog was eager to investigate when we heard from a reader, Sue, who received some nice advice from a US Airways representative when she called to ask what she should do about the tight squeeze between her disembarkation from a cruise and her flight from Fort Lauderdale back home to Las Vegas. The rep told her that as long as she wasn't more than two hours late for her flight, she could use the "flat tire" rule and be put on the next available flight at no charge. Was this true? Or was it some remnant from the days when stews wore minis?

Answers from the airlines were mixed. As we suspected, the so-called "flat tire rule" is just an informal understanding within some of the major airlines that if you should arrive late for your flight -- but not more than two hours late -- due to some event you really couldn't avoid (like, say, a flat tire), they'll consider putting you on the next flight to your destination on standby without paying a rebooking fee or the difference in the fares. Most were careful to say that this is a discretionary practice. However, knowledge of its subtleties can be useful to you, if you know which airlines are most likely to still observe it. Here are some guidelines on how to treat this "rule" and others like it when you happen across them:

Know which airlines observe it

In the case of Sue's flight on US Airways, we'd unfortunately counsel her not to rely on the friendly advice of the US Air rep she talked to, and go ahead and reschedule now for a later flight if there's any doubt she won't make the flight. (Our alternative advice: Convince the cruise company to agree to an early disembarkation.) According to US Air spokeswoman Valerie Wunder, "We'd handle issues on a case-by-case basis that morning," and staffers aren't likely to view Sue's situation in the same light as a flat tire. Other responses from legacy carriers were similarly non-committal, though American Airlines spokesman Ned Raynolds says, "If there's a verified mitigating circumstance that delayed a customer getting to the airport on time -- e.g. a major pileup on the freeway to the airport -- we will be reasonable and allow passengers to standby for later flights with no fee." If you were just fiddling around and running late, in other words, you'll be paying a rebooking fee, and perhaps the price difference between the earlier and later flights.

Some other airlines have more concrete policies

If you miss your JetBlue flight, for instance, you can travel standby on the next available flight with no fee as long as you contact the airline within two hours. If you don't show and don't call, you forfeit your flight and its value. Incidentally, if you just decide that day to cancel and rebook on the same day for the same two cities, you'll pay a Same-Day No-Show fee of $100 (with no difference in the airfare). In other words, it's better to "run late" than pre-meditate your no-show. Rebook for a day in the future, and you'll pay that fee plus the difference in fares. Southwest may have the most liberal "flat tire" policy of any domestic airline, with no fees for missing or rebooking "Think of Southwest as a bank that stores your travel dollars," says spokesman Chris Mainz. The airline won't charge you a rebooking fee and will put you on standby for free if you miss a flight. In fact, though you may have to pay the difference in fares if you rebook for a flight in the future, you won't pay a rebooking fee.

It's not really a "rule," so don't invoke It as if it were

No matter what any TV travel guru advises, don't arrive late at the airport and invoke the Flat Tire Rule with a flourish. Remember: Not a rule. The moniker is outdated enough that some airlines had no idea what we were talking about until we told them what we were referring to. And since this guideline doesn't reside on airline contracts of carriage, what you're really doing is throwing yourself at the mercy of the ticketing agent. And insisting on mercy is never a wise idea.

Have a legitimate reason for being late, and call ahead

An obvious, traffic-stopping torrential downpour: good excuse. A poker game that ran long: not. That said, there are some instances, such as Sue's, that reside in a grey area. We've had luck when we've called the airline on the way to the airport, knowing we'd be late. That way, when you arrive late, you can plead your case looking even more conscientious for having called already.

Don't count on it as a cure all

Even if every airline considered Sue's tight connection as a legitimate reason, there are other factors at play. Will flights be totally booked that day? Is it a holiday weekend? Does your particular airport have stricter check-in times than others? (If you're traveling domestically on Delta for instance, you can check in 30 minutes early at many airports, but you'll get cut off for check-in if you arrive fewer than 45 minutes early in Las Vegas, Orlando, L.A., Atlanta, and some others.) Busier airports on busy days aren't as likely to treat you generously.

And remember: Though you may bristle at the injustice of having to be understanding when the airline experiences an Act of God and cancels its flight as per its contract of carriage, the airline itself doesn't automatically feel the need to reciprocate when Nature causes you not show up for yours. Find the most sympathetic-looking agent and play nice.


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