How to Deal with Weather Delays

Delays/Cancellations, Southwest

My brother lives in Philly, and Wednesday night he had the unfortunate task of trying to fly out of that place in a soaking rain. Now, you know rain in general doesn’t cause problems, but in that magical Northeast corridor, it means congested airports like Philly basically grind to a halt.

He had to work a full day and then take the last flight out to Phoenix on Southwest (via Chicago/Midway). When he headed to the airport, there were average arrival delays of 3h 43m, and you know that, of course, means that departures weren’t going out on time either. Needless to say, his flight was going to misconnect in Chicago by a couple hours, leaving him stranded overnight.

What could he do?

I thought I’d piece together how I helped him with the thought that it might be helpful for others as well. Remember, in situations like this, the airline employees just want to get you out of there as quickly as possible, because they have thousands of people to help. So, the rules that may have applied to your ticket before are out the window. If you do the legwork and present a viable option, they’re likely to let you do it.

1) Determine Your Goal

When the weather is a mess like that and delays are rampant, you need to figure out your goal. For some people, it might be worth rescheduling your trip and going home. For others, you may need to have a certain time you need to be at your destination. Still others may just prefer to take the easiest option, even if it isn’t the quickest.

For my brother, he needed to be in Phoenix by 8a Thursday morning. With that in mind, I went to work.

2) Look for Earlier Flights

Knowing that his flight to Chicago would be delayed for a long time, it’s a natural move to look for any earlier flights. Those are probably also delayed and can end up getting you to your connection point at about the same time you were supposed to arrive. Sure enough, there was an earlier flight to Chicago, but the chances of getting on it very slim to none. Besides, there were other options out there that looked more appealing so he passed on trying for standby.

3) Look for Nonstops

My brother took the late connection because the last Phoenix nonstop was too early in the day. With delays, however, he had a chance on getting it. As I mentioned, when operations are horribly messed up like this, most airlines will get you there anyway they can; forget about fare rules and restrictions. So, he went to the gate and got on the standby list. With #26, his chances weren’t good, but they looked better than the earlier Chicago flight that was leaving at about the same time. He didn’t make it.

4) Grab the Route Map/Timetable

While he waited for the nonstop, we looked into backup plans. For smaller airports, this may not be necessary because there aren’t very many options. But in bigger airports where there are many destinations, the best thing you can do is figure out what options are out there. Most airlines offer a timetable on their website, so you can just download that and take a look. It’s a good idea to do this before you travel, just in case you need it. If you’re at the airport without it, just scan the departure screens to see where flights are going. Still, you’ll be much better off with an internet connection so log on or call a friend if you can.

I just started looking through all the cities Southwest flew from Philly and tried to manually build connections. Nothing worked that would get him there that night. So then I started going back to the goal. He needed to be in Phoenix by 8a. Now, my brother is used to not getting much sleep (he’s a doctor), so I knew that he would be willing to give up sleep to reach his ultimate goal.

His worst case scenario was that he took the Chicago flight, spent the night, and flew out first thing Thursday morning. That wouldn’t get him in until 915a, still a little too late. So, I looked for better alternatives. The closer I could get him to Phoenix that night, the easier it would be to get him to Phoenix early in the morning.

Sure enough, I found a flight to Austin that would allow him to take an early morning flight to Phoenix arriving at 740a. And besides, who wouldn’t rather spend the night in Austin than Midway?

He was fifth on the standby list, but that flight took none. Damn. But wait, there was one more chance. There was a slightly later flight that actually went through Nashville before arriving in Austin. He tried that one.

Success! Sure, he didn’t arrive Austin until just before 2a, but he did get about 3 hours of sleep before taking the 7a flight on Thursday to Phoenix. In the end, he made it by 8a, and for him that’s all that mattered.

So remember, keep your ultimate goal in mind. You won’t always get lucky like this. That last flight could have just as easily not worked out. He would have had to go to Chicago and fly out later Thursday morning. But knowing your options means that you have a much better chance than a lot of other people.

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8 comments on “How to Deal with Weather Delays

  1. Perhaps most importantly…work with a partner!

    It is always much easier during Irregular Ops to reach your destination if you have someone else to help you search the routes. Especially during Irregular Ops when many legacy carriers will be willing to re-book you on a different airline, you’ll need someone to help you sort through the hundreds of options available at a large hub.

    Keep in mind, that in times like this the Wi-Fi access points will be jammed with hundreds of other travelers like yourself who are trying to research their options. It helps to have a buddy at home with a reliably fast connection speed. In times like these, every second matters.

    In fact, your time might be better spent in line for a customer service agent while your friend does the foot work over the internet. That way, when you get to the agent, you can tell them exactly what you want to do. Chances are, they will be very grateful you’ve already done your homework and do their best to help you.

    Of course, all this depends on reliably communication equipment. So whenever you are headed into an airport under irregular operations, make sure you have your phone and laptop chargers handy. Also, scout out the publicly available power outlets early.

    Good luck!

    Matthew Gulino is an infrequent traveler who wishes otherwise. He currently resides in Boston, MA.

  2. I wonder if there is call for a web based or PDA based tool to calculate these things. I’m pretty good at putting together connections, but I wonder if the average business traveler would try as hard as you did?

  3. This is a great piece. More advice:

    1) One key factor of success is help the agent to help you. Brett did exactly that by doing the research that an agent might have otherwise done. Also, the agent may not think of unorthodox ways of getting there (e.g., Austin is not a typical connecting point for Southwest).

    2) Instead of waiting in line, often you’ll get help sooner by calling the airline’s reservation center. They can do some of the research and check of availability. Then, they can either make the changes over the phone, or enter remarks in the passenger record and the airport agent can take over from there. Again, help the agent to help you.

    3) This doesn’t work for southwest since they don’t interline with anyone else, but airlines often would endorse their ticket over to another airline if you ask nicely.

    4) Be calm – being irrational and angry doesn’t help the situation, certain doesn’t buy any brownie points for the agent who’s trying to help you.

  4. Great points, ptahcha. I especially like #4. Just put yourself in the agent’s shoes. There has likely been a parade of people angry and demanding. Dealing with that over and over is draining.

    I’ve even offered to buy the agent a bottle of water or a sandwich since breaks often don’t happen when things go downhill like this. You’d be amazed at how much a little kindness can do for you.

  5. Oh yeah, couldn’t agree with ptahcha more. Approach the situation with the attitude of ‘how can we figure this out together’ not ‘how could you horrible piece of sh*t airline let this happen to me’ and magic happens. Reminds me of the time husband, my mom, and I were flying CDG->LHR->SFO, and on the first leg, BMI accidentally checked both of the gate-checked strollers all the way to SFO rather than returning them to us at LHR. This was more annoying than usual as the LHR-SFO was delayed 6 hours (on top of the 3 hour layover) so strollers were more necessary than usual for kiddos to nap in etc. We could have managed without ours if we had to since our daughter was young and we had three adults and one child, but the other stroller belonged to a mom traveling alone with her 3 year old and her 1 year old, and she was pretty screwed without it. We both visited the United desk; she was pissed and demanded that they get her stroller right now and how could they do this to her etc. Customer service agent was polite in response to her meltdown (blaming him for something that had been done by another airline, no less) but said that there was nothing he could do since the strollers had already entered customs and couldn’t get back in our possession. She storms off, furious. I was behind her, same problem, and after about 45 minutes (lucky it was early morning and the counter was dead!) agent and I had worked through the problem, we met the strollers at the security checkpoint where they were screened before being delivered to us, and we all had two meals per person of meal vouchers. And I’m certainly on paragon of negotiation or human interaction or anything (far from it, just ask my husband!) but what made the difference was that I was nice about it, and that I listened to what he said and asked a lot of questions about how procedures worked instead of arguing with him about why things worked that way or how he better fix it now. He genuinely did not think there was any way to get them back, but after brainstorming about various rules and policies we finally arrived at perhaps using some rules about medication access to luggage and etc. etc. It required approval from someone and an available global services rep to do the stroller transport, but the agent was willing to pick up the phone and try, and it ended up working out.

    Ultimately, no matter how badly you’ve been screwed, how pissed you are, or how surly and rude the agent is, approach them as if they are trying to help you and do what you can to help them accomplish that task.

  6. The best advice I could give to anyone is to adopt the CF into your family. He has saved my rear end (and everyone else in my family) from potential travel disasters like these on numerous occasions. Thanks again!

    And Paula, I want to assure you that the CF maintained an adequate level of crankiness throughout the entire episode (doing my best to maintain your image here man).

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