Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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Eight Ways to Avoid Winter Flying Woes
January 7, 2016 -- As the old tune says, I guess I'm just a lucky so-and-so. While other flyers battled horrific weather between Christmas and New Year, my roundtrip transcontinental flights ran smooth as silk. I flew on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, traditionally two of the best days for flying at the end of the year. In fact, my return flight from San Francisco reached New York's John F. Kennedy Airport nearly an hour ahead of schedule. (Though, judging by photos from Bloomberg like the one attached to this story, other travelers got stuck at SFO on Dec. 24.) As you can see by this chart, however, lost souls who flew between the Eves were gobsmacked by a nearly Biblical plague of rain, flooding, winds, snow and ice. The system ran more than 82 percent on-time on New Year's Eve, but below 60 percent on three of the four previous days. And on December 28, nearly 13 percent of all domestic flights were cancelled. That's appalling when you consider a 2 percent cancellation rate is considered high. I naturally have sympathy for fellow travelers who lost the holiday weather lottery. None of us can outguess Mother Nature. Yet I'm less sympathetic to what I saw on television: scores of travelers sleeping on cots at Chicago's O'Hare airport, snaking lines of flyers at airports nationwide waiting for overworked airline agents to reschedule them. And, of course, interviews with disconsolate holidaymakers who were stuck with few options, fewer plans and no clue about how to help themselves. That should never be you. With some savvy planning and tactical resolve, you can fly around most winter weather woes. Here are my best tips culled from decades of battling Mother Nature — and the airlines. Plan a Plan B — Don't expect airline call centers or ticket-counter agents to have the time, inclination or resources to help you devise an alternate routing if the weather destroys your initial itinerary. Do it yourself and have a Plan B before beginning a winter trip. There's almost always another way to get where you're going. Unfortunately, airlines do seem intent on making our lives difficult. Delta Air Lines and American Airlines, for example, no longer "interline," which means they won't book you on the other carrier if your original flight cancels. Be prepared to pay your way to where you're going and fight for refunds later. Stretch your schedule — Winter conditions play havoc with schedules. Assume there will be delays for anything you use on the road: flights, airport shuttles, trains and even hotel check-ins and check-outs. The worse the weather, the more time you should allow to get from Point A to Point B. And never forget that roads to and from airports will be dicey in inclement weather. What good is an on-time flight if you missed it because of a traffic jam on an airport access road? Be elite in real time — Airlines have stratified their attempts to help disrupted travelers. The higher your frequent flyer program status, the better response and faster service you get. Make sure your online profiles are completely up-to-date with your mobile numbers and email addresses. Even if they're willing to do so, airlines can't help if they can't contact you. Have a bed for your head — Book back-up hotels along the way, including at or near any connecting airport you're using. There's simply no excuse for not having a hotel room when the weather throws you a curve. If you don't need the room, cancel. Look for lodgings with the most liberal cancellation policies. But even if you must eat the cost of an unused room once in a while, it's much better than the cold comfort of a plastic chair at an airport food court. And if a flight cancels mid-itinerary, don't wait for your airline to give you a voucher for "free" accommodations. The hotel is likely to be awful and you'll wait in long lines for the dubious perk. Instead, get online and book your own, then haggle over reimbursement from the airline later. Carry on carrying on — Airlines do lousy jobs moving passengers in lousy weather. You'll only exacerbate the problem if you check luggage. If a flight cancels after you've checked your bags--a not-uncommon winter occurrence--you might spend hours waiting for your luggage to be liberated. That could cause you to miss a back-up connection or alternate flight. Travel only with what you can carry on. If you need more, ship it ahead via UPS, FedEx or a service such as Luggage Forward. Keep it real (time) — Regardless of how you track travel intelligence — tablet, smartphone, or laptop — maximize your real-time sources. The Global Cancellations and Delay Tracker from FlightStats.com is excellent. So is a similar page from FlightAware.com. Its worldwide Airport Delays page is also useful. Bookmark the county-specific weather alert map from the National Weather Service. Meanwhile, follow the Twitter feeds and Facebook pages of the airlines and airports you use. Weather and operational updates usually appear on social media first. And here's a tip I learned from a fellow traveler: Airlines often make their own websites free on in-flight WiFi systems. That allows you to check whether you've already been reaccommodated if you're flying into trouble. If you haven't, you may be able to make your own changes on the literal fly. Cool out in a club — Whenever someone challenges my assertion that airport lounge memberships are the best investments you can make in your own comfort and productivity on the road, I ask two simple questions: How much is a few hours of your time worth? And where would you rather spend that time? Lounges offer comfy seating as well as the opportunity to charge your gear and recharge your brain and body. There are usually free snacks and soft drinks and sometimes free booze, too. But if you don't listen to me, you can still pay your way into an airline-sponsored lounge or a common-use club when the weather sours. The price is between $25-$50 a visit. Use an app such as Lounge Buddy to research your options. A final winter warning —"Regional airlines" operate about half of the nation's commercial flights, most of them cloaked in the colors and computer codes of American, United and Delta airlines. Unfortunately, these so-called commuter flights are notoriously unreliable, especially in winter months. Prime example: While 13 percent of flights nationwide were cancelled on December 28, the commuter carriers were much worse. GoJet, which flies for Delta and United, cancelled 43 percent of its schedule. Republic, which flies for all three legacy airlines, cancelled 48 percent of its operations. Although their ubiquity makes them hard to avoid, try not to book winter itineraries that include the regionals.
This column is Copyright © 2016 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2016 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.