8 TIPS FOR WHEN FLYING GETS ROTTEN
By Joe Brancatelli
October 2, 2014 --This is the week that was on the road: A disgruntled employee torched a suburban Chicago air traffic facility and tens of thousands of travelers scrambled as thousands of flights were abruptly cancelled. Pilot strikes hobbled flights in Paris and Frankfurt, the busiest hubs on the European continent. And, oh yeah, the revived People Express ran out of workable aircraft and abandoned flyers without alternative itineraries.
After a winter of historic misery and one of the worst flying summers since record-keeping began, the autumn travel season isn't off to a propitious start. That should remind all of us who live our lives on the road that there are no such things as "once-in-a-lifetime" flight disruptions or black-swan travel scenarios.
Bad things will happen on the road — strikes, storms, volcanic ash, terrorism, air traffic control snafus, who knows what. If you don't plan, you're likely to spend more than a few nights on an airport floor relying on the kindness of strangers. If you do plan, you'll still encounter misery, but you've got a much better shot at traveling with a modicum of equanimity and a minimum of discomfort.
Here are eight tactics for making it all — well, some of it — better.
1. Assume the worst will happen. The best way to navigate a disruption is to have several contingencies at your fingertips. Know what your alternate flight options are — don't expect harried gate and ticket agents to know — by plotting other routes before you get to the airport. If flying goes pear-shaped, know the ground-transportation options at every airport you're using. (The $5 Airport Transit Guide app is especially invaluable.) And make sure you know all of the lodging options at or near the hotel in case you need to arrange an unscheduled layover. The Airport Hotel Guide website and its associated app aren't complete or unbiased, but they are worth consulting in advance.
2. Lose your bags before the airlines do. It's hard enough to manage a flight disruption when you're only worried about getting yourself from place to place. Add the complexity of checked bags and heartache is sure to follow. Do whatever you can to fly only with carry-on bags. Rather than check bags with airlines, ship via a third party service such as Luggage Forward. And if you can't start your trip without checked bags, be ready to jettison them when a serious flight disruption occurs. Virtually all airports have FedEx and/or UPS stations on or near the grounds. Let the courier services get those bags to your destination while you worry about your alternate flight plans.
3. Fly around the commuter carriers . This is tricky because commuter or "regional" airlines now handle about half of all domestic flights. But as events after last Friday's fire in suburban Chicago vividly revealed, the big airlines will cancel commuter flights first in an attempt to keep larger aircraft in the air. Whenever possible, choose an itinerary that uses only larger jets operated by the mainline airlines. If a regional-jet flight is the only option, check to see if you can drive that portion of the itinerary instead.
4. Have airport-club access. I've said this since the first Seat 2B column in 2007: Access to private airport clubs and lounges is the best investment you can make in your personal comfort and productivity on the road. They also provide comparatively serene havens during chaotic flight disruptions. And in the airline-sponsored clubs, you'll have access to special agents who can help with alternatives. A $1,300 annual investment in the appropriate credit cards will get you nearly universal access to the existing clubs. Most lounges also offer day passes for around $50 a pop.
5. Secure a bed for your head. When flights go bad due to inclement weather or some other misfortune, arrange for a crash pad even before you try to arrange new flights. In a situation like Friday's meltdown in Chicago, when 10 percent of the nation's 22,000 flights were cancelled, rooms at airport hotels around the country sold out fast. Have the apps of all the major chains on your phone for quickest access to their inventory. Another option: Hotel Tonight, an app that specializes in same-night booking.
6. Get the relevant apps. I travel with a super-light laptop, so I've long favored my computer for critical information retrieval. But it wasn't until my smartphone bricked this weekend that I realized exactly how much even I had come to depend on it. So let's bow to reality. A good smartphone with a decent-sized screen (welcome to 2014, iPhone) is invaluable. You will need all the relevant apps, too. Besides flight-specific ones — I favor FlightStats and FlightAware— load up on the apps created by individual airports. Install at least one good weather app and useful services such GateGuru; LoungeBuddy; and B4 You Board from HMSHost, the airport-dining giants. You also must have a news app since airports are awful places to find out why the airport is running so poorly. I find myself most frequently consulting apps from Reuters and BBC News.
7. Pay now, argue later. We're all smart business people — or at least we claim to be. So how about we factor in the value of our time during a flight disruption? If spending an extra $20 or $50 will get us what we need to get us home or to our appointment on time, why fight it? If you think the price was too high or unfair, argue with the provider later. Are you really going to haggle about a $200 ticket-change fee or a $100 add-on for a car rental when a crucial business meeting — or getting home to your family — is at stake?
8. Have a good travel agent. If your firm doesn't have an in-house travel operation and doesn't work with a good third-party agency, consider finding your own travel agent. Agents do charge a fee for their service, but they provide useful back-up in a crisis and have access to resources not available to most business travelers.
Finally, and most important of all, be Zen-like when things go wrong. It's okay (within reason) to argue for what you want and to demand (within reason) what you think you deserve. But the poor airline ticket agent can't control the weather. And the front-desk clerk at the hotel on the exit ramp near the airport probably can't fix the crisis that forced you to appear at two in the morning.
There will be times when you simply can't control your life on the road. Delays and disruptions are inevitable. Screaming about it or doing a "Don't you know who I am?" routine on some down-the-food chain functionary won't change that. At least have the smarts to have the serenity to take in all in stride.
ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT This column is Copyright © 2014 American City Business Journals. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2014 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.