The traveler’s law: Know thine options!

The Travel Adviser: Delays are unavoidable when flying, but passengers themselves often delay flights.

May 29, 2011 02:57
[illustrative photo]

Passengers plane flight 311 (R). (photo credit: Vivek Prakash / Reuters)

It was the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who is credited with the following words of wisdom: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Forty years after his death, the airline industry challenges clients almost daily to internalize his philosophy.

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First and foremost, occasional delays are part of flying. We may dislike them, but we cannot avoid them, no matter which airline we’re discussing.

Before we explore what your rights are when there is a delay, we need to understand the conundrum: What causes flight delays? I’ve discovered that the majority of flight delays can be broken down into three categories. The first category may surprise some readers – it’s you! Passengers themselves often delay flights. Passengers who have checked in for international flights with luggage and failed to show up at the boarding gate will cause a flight to be delayed.

How often have we heard the beseeching tone, stating unequivocally that this is the final call for boarding for a specific flight? Passengers become enamored of their duty-free shopping, take the time for one last cigarette or – as happened recently to a frequent flier – fall asleep in the business lounge. The airline, realizing that checked bags and the passenger manifest do not match, has no choice but to offload the checked-in bag. If a passenger with no check-in baggage fails to turn up at the stipulated time, he or she is simply left behind.

The second factor contributing to flight delays is the weather. Be it volcanic ash, a severe snowstorm or even thick fog, aircraft may be grounded, creating a delay. This is inevitably echoed throughout the world, as the delay of one plane forces its next flight route to be delayed. This snowball effect, prevalent most winters along the East Coast of the US, can often take days to untangle. In addition, the longer the plane is delayed, the greater the risk that the crew will no longer be physically able to navigate the plane, if their work schedule extends beyond normal operating procedures The final factor is technical problems. These are usually attributed to the aircraft itself, and passengers are rarely told the exact reason. While most aircraft are designed to fly with minor defects, once a pilot has decided that an explicit risk has presented itself, the philosophy that it’s better to be safe than sorry reigns supreme. This last factor, at least, should leave one at ease, knowing that the plane will not embark until it’s been declared safe to fly.

LEAVING ASIDE the financial compensation you may be eligible to get, which varies widely from country to country, let’s take a closer look at how two airlines, Continental and El Al, reacted to recent flight delays.

Jack and Jill were making their way back from Houston to Tel Aviv on Continental Airlines. Jack works hard – too hard, his wife would say. Wellcompensated, when going on vacation he’s able to fly business class and, just as impressively, was able to use his frequent flier miles to get a bonus business-class ticket for his wife.

Combining work with a vacation in Central America, they were making their way home from Houston via Newark. Jack was a maven in making sure he had enough time for his connecting flights, knowing full well that cutting it too close increases the odds of missing the connection. His travel consultant had booked him with a two-anda- half hour layover in Newark, believing this was a large enough window. Regrettably the plane was delayed in Houston and departed much later than planned. After racing over to the departure gate at Newark Airport, they were informed by Continental personnel that it was too late and the gate was closed.

Realizing that the gate personnel were only doing their job, after a few minutes of imploring the staff, Jack and Jill stoically accepted their fate.

The next flight, though, would have them arriving on Shabbat – and even worse, the Saturday night flight from Newark was sold out.

So what did Continental do? They were both rebooked on an El Al flight. In fact, as business class was full, Continental was kind enough to bump them to first class. Now, as good as El Al’s first class may be, this kind of fierce loyalty on Continental’s behalf ensured that Jack and Jill would now be flying Continental whenever they could.

All airlines should take a lesson from this, as Shane’s sad story will illustrate. He elected to fly El Al from the US, using a second airline to add on to El Al’s flight from New York. He was warned that while airlines no longer require reconfirmation, checking in 24 hours prior to the flight would be prudent. This would ensure that any time changes resulting in missed connections would be avoided.

On his return flight to the US, though, he was scheduled to depart at 1 a.m. Being observant meant he could not do a Web check in 24 hours in advance, but the moment Shabbat ended, he attempted to do so. Airline sites can be fickle, and after 10 minutes without success, he called El Al.

The airline staff blithely told him that his plane’s departure time had been brought forward three hours, and with one hour to spare and being too far away from Ben-Gurion Airport, he was informed that he would not be able to fly.

Requesting that they put him on the next available flight, he was told that no space existed for 48 hours and that he would need to spend the next few days in Israel.

Naively accepting what they said, he permitted himself to be rebooked and informed his boss that he would be missing an additional two days of work.

Upon his return, he wrote a letter to El Al, demanding some type of compensation. El Al’s reply was that he should have shown up at the airport, and as the airline had made the change, it would have put him on the next available aircraft (in this case Continental) or put him up in a hotel.

What is important to learn is, always know your options. Keep in mind that no airline wants to endorse your ticket over to another carrier. They much prefer the money stays in their coffers. You need to be creative, keeping in mind that ground staff have limited tools at their disposal, and more often than not are trying to deal with dozens of disgruntled customers. Only your wisdom (or your travel consultant’s advice) can determine the correct path to take.

Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem.

For questions and comments, e-mail him at [email protected]

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