Just mentioning the words canceled, delayed, or misconnected to most fliers and you’ll see the look of terror flash across their faces. It is really not a fun thing to have to experience, but it happens all the time.
Think about it, if an airline gets 4 in 5 flights to arrive within 15 minutes of schedule, they’re doing pretty well. And an airline that runs 99 out of 100 flights is running a great operation as well. That means that you have a very good chance of being delayed at some point during your travels, and a not-so-rare chance of being canceled.
Delays are the best you can hope for of the three. At least you have a seat on a plane. While you may arrive later than you hoped, at least you’ll arrive on the flight you expected.
Misconnections are the next step up the ladder. If your first flight is delayed into a connecting city, well, there’s a good chance of misconnecting once you’re there. The good news is that if the delays aren’t widespread, you won’t have much competition for seats on later flights because most of the people on your first flight are scattering to tons of different places around the globe.
Canceling is the worst. If your flight is canceled, there are a bunch of other people on that flight trying to scratch and claw for an empty seat on a later flight, and you may be out of luck for awhile. I can remember helping out in the America West operation in Phoenix a few years back and telling someone on Friday that we couldn’t get them to their destination until Tuesday. Ouch.
So what should you do when this happens to you? Well the New York Times put out an article on Sunday with the very misleading title of “What to Do When Bumped From a Flight.” If you’re bumped from a flight, they’ll take care of you right away. This article really focuses on what happens if a flight is canceled.
The impetus for this article is the widespread introduction of reaccommodation software across many airlines. This software can be programmed to put people on alternate flights in many different ways, but most common is to have the airline’s best customers get first dibs. This means the elite members of the frequent flier program as well as higher paying customers will be put on flights before you and your $39 fare go anywhere.
The article offers the suggestion that you should just try flying airlines that don’t use these systems, like Continental. But that seems like bad advice to me. These systems rebook people very quickly and you can be on your way in no time. The airlines that still do it by hand are the airlines with long snaking lines throughout the terminal. There’s nothing worse than standing in that line for hours as people brush by you to get on flights you wish you were on.
So, what can you do?
Well the second recommendation is a good one . . . start dialing. If you sense anything fishy going on that makes you believe your about to be in trouble, get on that phone to reservations. If you’re on a delayed flight and you think you’re going to misconnect, call them up and ask them nicely to rebook you. (Always be nice, it’s never the fault of the person with whom you’re speaking.) This will make your life much easier.
And if you’re sitting on a plane and the captain announces your flight has been canceled, whip out that cell phone again. Even if you’ve been rebooked already, you can still ask the agent to search for better alternates.
While you’re at it, carry a timetable (hard copy or electronic). Airlines have thousands of flights, so if you can help guide the reservations agent to what you want, you’ll get it much more quickly.
If all else fails, you can always try Rule 240 or Rule 120.20. I realize those numbers alone make no sense to you, but the ideas are the same. This is how you try to get yourself put on another airline’s flights so you can get out of town before next week.
Rule 120.20 is an agreement between ATA member airlines (mostly US-based) that says that each airline will accept the ticket from another airline for rebooking at the face value of the ticket. Since electronic tickets are the norm these days, it’s a virtual transfer that an agent must do, but it means no cash changes hands. The new airline just collects the revenue from that ticket that the original airline would have collected.
IATA’s rule 240 is the same in spirit, but the compensation occurs on the backend between the airlines. For the customer, it’s no different.
If you’re going to try for this option, be careful. There are a lot of things that airlines do to limit your ability to use these rules. Most airlines won’t transfer you to another airline if they can find accommodation with you on themselves (duh) within a reasonable amount of time (usually about 2 hours). Also, if it’s the fault of weather or strikes, and pretty much anything outside the airline’s control, you may be out of luck as well. That being said, you should always ask.
In the end, patience and kindness will get you further than anything else. If a gate agent or reservations agent is having a bad day, just being nice and friendly will get you far. I’ve been upgraded for offering to bring an agent a sandwich after she had clearly been on her feet for hours without a break. You’ll be on your way in no time.