Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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10 Ways to Survive Summer Air Travel Nightmares
June 25, 2015 -- The coming of summer after the miserable winter and storm-plagued spring should have been good news for business travelers. But no-o-o-o! Summer arrived complete with heavy rain, thunder and lightning, tropical storms and hail. The result? Business flying has been a delay-prone, cancellation-pocked nightmare and virtually indistinguishable from the seasons that have gone before In the never-ending battle between business flyers and Mother Nature, we always lose. Accept it. But it doesn't have to be as bad as it seems. In the words of the bearded bard, who learned them on a summer train bound for nowhere, you gotta you know when hold 'em and fold 'em, know when to run away — and assume airlines and hotels will count your money as you struggle to survive. Here are ten tips to stay sane this summer on the road. Know the chokepoints— Now that the nation's airline are "consolidated," five carriers — American, Delta, United, Southwest and JetBlue — control about 80 percent of the traffic. That makes travel chokepoints all the more obvious. Chicago, home to hubs of American and United (at O'Hare Airport) and Southwest (at Midway), is a disaster whenever a summer storm rolls in. (On Monday, for example, nearly 600 flights were dumped when a storm hit Chicagoland.) The Dallas Metroplex, hit with every plague save locusts in recent months, quickly cripples parts of the American (via DFW Airport) and Southwest (Love Field) networks. San Francisco International, home to hubs of United and Virgin America, is often fog-bound even when the rest of the Bay Area is clear. Then there's the nexus of all bad business-travel vibes: The Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington. Morning delays cascade in waves across the nation and afternoon storms play havoc with evening departures to Europe. And to make things worse, one of the four runways at New York's Kennedy Airport is closed for repairs this summer. Know the culprits — The nation's commuter airlines, who fly turboprop and small jets for the larger carriers, account for half of the nation's aircraft traffic. They also account for a disproportionately large percent of the flight cancellations. On June 17, for example, storms led to the cancellation of 3.5 percent of the nation's flights, according to FlightStats.com. But the commuter airlines were much worse: ExpressJet, which flies for Delta and United, cancelled nearly 9 percent of its flights. The same for Envoy, which operates as an American Airlines commuter. Mesa (United and American) dumped 15 percent and Trans States (United and American) cancelled 10 percent of its flights. The nationwide system was closer to the daily norm the next day (2.3 percent of flights cancelled), but the commuters were still dumping service in bunches: from 9 percent at Mesa to 16 percent at Piedmont, which flies for American. The obvious conclusion? Avoid commuter flights. Don't double your trouble — Navigating around national chokepoints and avoiding half the nation's flights is hard enough. Don't exacerbate the situation by booking a connecting itinerary if you can avoid it. Go nonstop whenever possible, even if it costs more. The reasoning is simple: Fewer flights on any itinerary means fewer chances of delays and cancellations. Plan your own Plan B — When weather scrambles flights, airline call centers and airport ticket and service counters are overwhelmed. That's because airlines have slashed personnel at both those passenger-facing pain points. So even when you do finally connect, don't expect those overworked (and underpaid) staffers to work miracles. Help them help you by having a pre-arranged Plan B. If you know your options before your Plan A collapses, you can quickly switch to Plan B rather than rely on the kindness of overwhelmed strangers. Get better intelligence — Forget TV's Weather Channel. It treats weather like clickbait. Go right to the source, the National Weather Service. Its site allows you to drill down to weather conditions and predictions at the county level. It's your most reliable source of usable information. For airlines, Flightaware.com offers a valuable data point beyond the status of your flight. Its "track inbound flight" link tells you where your aircraft is in real time and when it is due to reach your gate. Your bags shouldn't be baggage — Getting yourself from Point A to Point B while you duck summer storms is difficult and draining enough. Don't magnify the problems by checking luggage, which will only slow you down and might not fly with you as you pick your way through the detritus of summer schedules. Fly only with carry-ons whenever possible. If you must pack a load, ship it instead. Third-parties such as Luggage Forward and commercial shippers such as FedEx or UPS aren't cheap, but they are more reliable than airlines. Tweet, don't talk — While airlines are notorious for miserable dial-up and in-person customer service, several do a decent enough job helping individual travelers via social media, specifically Twitter. If you run into trouble, a direct message to an airline's Twitter feed might garner some assistance. #longshot Go a la carte at the club — If your budget doesn't allow you to join all the airport clubs, don't give up. When you're caught during a summer storm without club access, pay to play on a one-off basis. Airline-operated clubs usually charge about $50 a pop for entrance. Privately run clubs charge less. One caveat: When storms ground planes, airline often shut down a la carte entry to their proprietary clubs. Don't wait for airline assistance — When flights cancel, airlines may (or may not) offer overnight accommodations. Don't waste your time waiting for this questionable bit of largesse. The hotels will be third-rate and certainly not worth the time you've waited. It's better to get your own accommodations at or near the airport and argue with the airline about compensation later. You'll be relaxing in your room hours before your fellow flyers receive their lodging chits. And, once again, here's where advance planning helps. Whenever you travel, compile a list of the acceptable hotels near the airports you're using. Know when to fold them — No matter how well you plan and how tactically you act, you'll often lose the battle. Sometimes, you just can't win. The trick is knowing when to give up. I can't tell you when you reach that point, but don't overthink your loss to Mother Nature. Grab a hotel room, have a nice dinner, recharge your mobile devices, get a good night's sleep and fight the good fight again tomorrow.
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