The Travel Adviser: Be happy, don’t worry

Watching airline personnel running around after announcing such a cancellation, you’d think this had never happened before. Avoiding cancellations requires some simple advance planning.

By
December 3, 2017 00:18
Ben Gurion Airport

Ben Gurion Airport. (photo credit: MEWASUL/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

 
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Trying to be happy is usually considered a wise life choice for a healthy life. Certainly when one is navigating through airports with security checks, baggage identification, etc., it’s advisable to look on the bright side.

What happens though, when your name is Happy and you, your husband and your son are simply trying to fly to Miami when obstacles are being thrown in your way at every step? Let me share with you the trials and tribulations of Happy’s woeful tale.

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Happy is not a fan of flying; in fact, she’s a bit queasy when boarding a plane, but a family simcha in Florida meant she had no option but to take to the skies. She and her travel consultant reviewed a myriad of options before choosing an American Airline ticket that had her flying on Iberia Airlines to Madrid with a quick connection to an American Airlines plane across the Atlantic to Miami where her daughter resided. I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that she no doubt chose this option as it tends to be quite inexpensive compared to other airlines.

American Airlines is no low-cost carrier. Headquartered in the heart of Texas, this Fort Worth-based firm is the world’s largest airline when measured by both fleet size and revenue. AA averages nearly 6,700 flights every single day to hundreds of destinations in more than 50 countries.

It was a muggy humid day in late July when Happy and her clan arrived early at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport. The lines were long, but the air conditioning kept the crowds at bay and after a few purchases in the duty-free stores, they boarded their Iberian flight to Madrid. Happy later reported it was the last peaceful time they had for over 48 hours.

No doubt many of you reading this are certain you know what happened next. Rubbing your chin, you’re presuming they missed their connecting flight. Tight connections and switching planes is never a smart idea unless you give yourself plenty of time. Sorry to disappoint you, but they didn’t miss the connecting flight.

It was canceled outright.

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I’ve heard of airlines canceling flights due to mechanical reasons. Weather can of course play a large part in an airline scrubbing a scheduled flight. When that first flight is canceled, it initiates a snowball effect. Metaphorically, a snowball effect is a process that starts from an initial state of small significance, say a flight is delayed departing Hong Kong to London, and builds upon itself, becoming larger (so the flight from London to Madrid loses its departure slot at Heathrow and the crew exhausts its legally permitted flight time limitation), and also perhaps potentially calamitous (so there’s no aircraft to fly Madrid to Miami) Airlines try to avoid canceling flights to save money.

They cancel flights to prevent wider cancellations and delays. The idea that airlines could benefit from such cancellations, at the expense of their passengers’ convenience, may seem like a logical argument if you think of a single flight in isolation. But what makes the airline industry so complicated, and often so confusing for its passengers, is that flights don’t exist in isolation, they are part of a complex system.

However the reason that AA chose to cancel this specific flight from Madrid to Miami had nothing to do with those reasons. Weather was fine; the crew had not reached its maximum limitation of time; the aircraft was humming perfectly, ready to soar to the heavens. American Airlines Flight 1630 on July 21 was canceled because there were not enough passengers! Yes in the height of the summer season there were simply not enough Spaniards or Americans wishing to take that specific flight, so American Airlines axed it. As Happy and her family were the only ones making the transfer at Madrid airport, there was nobody there to meet them and in fact they were literally abandoned.

What should Happy have done when her flight was canceled? What’s the first thing you should do when your flight gets canceled? Imagine you’re waiting to check in or you look up at the departure board and you discover that your flight has been canceled. While everyone else gets into a fit of anger and chaos, your first move, besides heading toward that long service line, is to call your travel consultant or the airline.Relying solely upon the entry level, myopic view of a specific airline’s representative employed at the airport is pure folly. Call a travel professional. With this step, you’re essentially cutting the line in front of you. Your travel consultant can advise you before you get to the counter what your options are; which flights have space even if not on that specific airline. He or she can tell you what your rights are regarding immediate compensation or demanding a hotel. If you booked your flight online, then call the airline’s reservation department; have them investigate all the options, not only on with one specific airline but any airline flying the same route.

In the US alone, airlines canceled nearly 100,000 flights last year, which is nearly 3%. In plain language, please grasp that cancellations are fairly routine, particularly during wintertime. Yet watching airline personnel running around after announcing such a cancellation, you’d think this had never happened before. Avoiding cancellations requires some simple advance planning.

1. Fly in the morning. This is key. As two thirds of delays and cancellations are weather-related, delays accumulate throughout the day due to the snowball effect.

2. Before booking, check a route’s on-time performance.

Sites like www.flightstats.com let you see which flights get delayed and canceled a lot.

3. Don’t check bags if possible. The jerk who shows up with two carry-on bags at the gate when you’re only allowed one? That’s the smarter flyer. Because gate checks are usually free. Because gate workers usually allow you on anyway. Because once the airline has your luggage under the plane, you’re screwed if you need to rebook.

4. Be the immovable object. When you get to the counter: refuse to move. Demand to be booked on another airline. Be polite, but firm. Keep in mind you’re asking them for a huge favor. Airlines don’t need to rebook you on another airline; most prefer to put you up overnight and keep the revenue on their own airline. Just be nice but immovable, asking one question after another until they capitulate. KNOW ahead of time your options.

Happy never reached out to her travel agent. Wandering from airline counter to airline counter, they finally found a sympathetic ear at an open American Airline Counter.

Devoid of much imagination, their initial proposal was for them to sleep over in Madrid, at the families’ expense and fly out the next day via Boston, as the nonstop flight to Miami was already sold out. Their patience had come to an end and they demanded a different resolution. The AA ground attendant let on that there was an Iberian flight departing now to New York with an immediate connection down to Miami on an AA flight.

Fighting her fear of flying, she realized that taking two flights was the only way she would see her daughter in Miami on this day, they ran to the gate and boarded the Iberian flight. One would like to believe that some form of tranquility was achieved on the nearly 10-hour flight to the Big Apple.

Landing at JFK, they collected their suitcases, went through passport control and checked in for their AA flight down to Miami. Racing through the cavernous airport, they made their way to the gate only to see the door slowly being shut. Tears racing down her face, she implored the gate attendant to let her trio board but sadly was told that US security forbids the door being opened once it’s been closed. So while their suitcases did reach Miami, they were stranded at JFK airport with no clothing or personal belongings. Retracing their steps to the AA airline counter, they were told that the next flight to Miami was the following morning and three boarding passes were quickly handed over. Battered and beaten they put on no opposition.

No doubt AA took pity on them and arranged an airport hotel; some pocket cash to purchase basic items, meal vouchers to squelch their growling stomachs? No such luck; nothing was offered and truth be told nothing was requested. American Airlines didn’t even provide them with a hotel, as they were in economy class; nor offer them any compensation whatsoever.

It was at this stage that Happy finally contacted her travel consultant. Aghast at how shoddily they had been treated, the consultant instructed them to go check into the airport hotel, letting them know where to get the shuttle. He told them to purchase any items needed, be it clothes or sustenance and to save every single receipt.

The agent was so incensed that he promised that he would get them justice and compensation for their sufferings.

Contacting the representative of American Airlines in Israel, he was enlightened as to whom to send the complaint. He decided, though, that the entire incident was so complicated that he advised Happy to utilize the services of a company whose sole raison d’etre was to deal with such airline practices.

Curiously, American Airlines initially refused compensation stating that once the family chose to fly Iberia to JFK, American Airlines was not legally responsible.

Fortunately the lawyer of the company they were using knew the legal ramifications far better and after making some threats, American Airlines generously compensated them a bit over $3,000. This amount was agreed up to cover both the delay in arriving in Florida as well as full restitution of every penny they had to put out.

We’re entering the winter season; weather will wreak havoc on airline’s schedules. Like Happy and her family, the odds are that you’ll wind up cooling your heels in an airport gate area for hours and hours if your flight is ever delayed. It will suck; it always sucked, all the more so now that airlines have gotten too cheap to spring for a free meal or hotel lodging unless guilted into it. Follow the above tips and you’ll avoid the worst.

If all else fails, remember: everyone else is in the same sweaty boat, so simply strive to be happy and not worry.

The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments, email him at mark.feldman@ziontours.co.il

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