Flying past those airport nightmares
What to do if your business trip devolves into a worst-case scenario.
(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- You need to get to that meeting, and you need to have all your stuff when you get there. But sometimes your needs are no match for mechanical difficulties, "acts of God," or downright incompetence on the part of an airline. Can anything be done if your flight is canceled or your luggage lost? Yes - you can learn how to better navigate the system before hopping in the cab to the airport. Here's a crash course in surviving the chaos of business travel.
Scenario 1 - delayed/canceled flight
A 30-minute delay has stretched into hours. Time to look for another option.
The odds: Since January, airlines have canceled more than 90,000 flights. And just 73 percent of arrivals in the past year have been on time, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation's August 2007 Air Travel Consumer Report.
The plan: There are no federal regulations governing how airlines should help passengers affected by delayed flights, so take matters into your own hands. Dial the airline's customer service number while you're in line to change your ticket; you might find an open seat before you reach the counter. Another option is to head to the frequent-flier lounge. Even if you're not a member, you can buy a one-day pass and make use of the less harried lounge staff to rebook your trip.
Tips and tools
1. Spring for a wireless card for your laptop. If your trip goes awry, you won't have the added hassle of tracking down a Wi-Fi hotspot.
2. Don't trust the airlines. Flightaware.com tracks the locations of all planes, so you'll know how far yours is from the gate.
3. MobileCierge's "mobile personal assistants" are available 24 hours a day and can secure last-minute reservations on all major airlines. The cost is just $8 a month.
Scenario 2 - mishandled baggage
You packed it, they tagged it, but it wasn't there when the carousel stopped spinning. You can't show up in the conference room tomorrow in the ratty jeans you wore on the plane. Now what?
The odds: From January to June, passengers filed more than 2.2 million lost baggage reports - up 30 percent from the same period in 2006.
The plan: Chances are you won't be the only angry person in line at the claim counter. Call the airline while you wait. "It can be effective to get into the mainstream system immediately; the person on the phone may not be as pressured as the counter person," says Krista Pappas, a veteran frequent flier and VP for business development at the airfare prediction site Farecast. You should still wait in line to fill out a claim form, and be sure to get a copy of it, along with an employee's name and a phone number to follow up.
The DOT's Consumer Protection Division recommends negotiating a cash advance if you're missing essential items that you need immediately. Most carriers authorize employees to disburse some money at the airport for emergency purchases. If your bags are lost for good, the airline will pay as much as $3,000 for your items, but you'll have to prove their value.
Tips and tools
Don't call the airlines' main numbers; instead, print and save this list to speak directly to the baggage departments.
Scenario 3 - oversold flight
You have a ticket, but that doesn't mean you have a seat. Too many people checked in for an overbooked flight, and you're the loser in the airlines' peculiar version of musical chairs.
The odds: Smaller than you might expect, given that airlines routinely oversell flights to compensate for no-shows. From January to June, just a bit more than one passenger per 10,000 was bumped involuntarily. But the number did grow by 13 percent compared with last year's figures.
The plan: Negotiate on the spot. You have the right to ask for a full refund if you don't want to accept the standard offer of a free trip in the future. You're also entitled to as much as $400 if the airline can't get you another flight or the substitute flight arrives more than two hours later than your original itinerary. If you have your laptop, find out when other carriers are flying to your destination; when you ask to have your ticket endorsed over to another airline, you'll already know which flight you want.
Tips and tools
1. Before booking your flight, check the DOT's recent oversales rankings (airconsumer.ost.dot.gov/reports) to see which airlines are the worst offenders.
2. Bumptracker.com goes further, detailing overbooked routes for each airline, the number of passengers bumped per flight, and the compensation offered.
3. Consider JetBlue. It doesn't overbook. Period. In the unlikely event that you are bumped involuntarily, JetBlue is very generous: Thanks to its PR fiasco last winter (see "Scenario 4," right), it will give you $1,000 for your trouble.
Scenario 4 - tarmac limbo
Your seatbelt's fastened, the plane has pulled away from the gate, and... nothing. You wait and wait and wait.
The odds: In June alone, more than 2,000 flights kept passengers waiting on the tarmac for more than two hours.
The plan: You don't have a great number of options if you're already stuck. In the wake of JetBlue's pathetic response to the winter storm that shut down airports in the Northeast in February - and stranded hundreds of passengers in planes for as long as 11 hours - plenty of lip service has been paid to the issue, but not much has improved.
Still, while you can't prevent tarmac limbo, you can complain - loudly - and demand compensation after the fact. "Use every channel at your fingertips," Farecast's Pappas advises. She posts on highly visible travel forums like TripAdvisor and FlyerTalk, e-mails the airline's customer service department, files a complaint with the DOT (firstname.lastname@example.org), and uses the networking site LinkedIn to find higher-level airline executives whom she can e-mail directly. Her minimum price for being held too long on the tarmac? Two business-class tickets with no blackout dates.
Tips and tools
(Perform at your own risk.) If all else fails, you can do what Continental passengers did in July after waiting five hours in a hot plane: Organize a mutiny. Clap and bang on the overhead bins until you frighten the pilot and he calls the police. Just don't expect a warm welcome back at the terminal.To send a letter to the editor about this story, click here.