The Travel Adviser: Withering winter weather

Sadly, in these days of high-speed Internet and meta searches, airline reservations remain a self-contained unit.

El Al airplanes sit on the runway 370 (R) (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
El Al airplanes sit on the runway 370 (R)
(photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)
The advent of spring is still a good month away and sadly, winter storms have been battering the East Coast almost on a weekly basis.
Airlines have an excellent track record due to better weather forecasting models of predicting when a storm will hit. We receive constant weather updates, allowing customers to change their flights free of charge to dates beyond the predicted inclement weather.
While this works wonders for the domestic passenger, the international traveler has little flexibility to postpone business meetings – and too often is left to the vagaries of airport and reservation personnel.
Sadly, in these days of high-speed Internet and meta searches, airline reservations remain a self-contained unit. Say your flight from Toronto to Boston on Air Canada is canceled; nobody in Air Canada can even “see” if there’s space on West Jet or United Airlines.
They actually have to call the other airline to verify if they have space. Of course, when one books with a travel agent, he or she has the ability to view all alternative airlines at one glance.
There is one other important element to consider when booking a ticket, especially in the winter months. Do your very best to make sure all of your flights are on one reservation. Mixing and matching airlines may save you money, but doing so comes at a cost. I submit as evidence the cautionary tale of the Good Doctor. As is my wont, the names have been changed to protect the guilty or innocent, as the case may be.
Dr. and Mrs. Robert Mellon had reached that stage in life where they could afford some of the better things in life. Very high on that list is when flying from Tel Aviv to New York, they wanted both a nonstop flight and to enjoy business class. Their plans for their winter trip were after a week in New York, they would fly out to Detroit for a family visit, stay for the weekend and fly back from Detroit with only a quick switch of planes in JFK, before continuing back to Tel Aviv. For that two-hour flight to Detroit, though, there was no need for business class.
However, like all of her competitors, El Al doesn’t offer the option to fly part of the trip in business class and part in economy. And while the add-on to Detroit in economy class was under $200, the add-on in business class topped $1,000.
Unfortunately, the final decision to add the flights to and from Detroit came to fruition one month after purchasing their business class ticket to New York, and the change fees were inordinately high. El Al had no legal or moral obligation to assist them if their Delta flight was late in arriving at JFK on their return flight to Tel Aviv. Hindsight is 20-20 and after their experience, I am certain the Mellons won’t ever take such a risk again.
It was a cold and frigid morning, with a wind chill temperature of -10, when they showed up at Detroit Metropolitan Airport for their Delta flight to JFK. Most of the airports in the American Midwest are well-prepared for winter weather; however, JFK was another story. Snowed in and shut down, very few domestic flights were flying in or out of the Big Apple. Delta had canceled her flights and while international flights from JFK were operating, they had no way to get to the El Al plane.
A furtive phone call to their travel consultant had them pleading with Delta to do something to get them home. The Delta airport representative said she had no way to contact El Al, and that she couldn’t even see the El Al ticket. More pleading from all the parties resulted in the most imaginative solution I’ve ever seen. Delta staff took the El Al ticket, even though it didn’t belong to them, and rebooked them to fly from Detroit to London and from there on one of their partners, Alitalia, to fly from London to Rome to Tel Aviv.
The client was perturbed he wasn’t in business class – which, of course, was not the responsibility of the Delta ground agent.
El Al had offered them the option to delay their flight by 24 hours, but Dr. Mellon elected to get back to Israel as quickly as possible. They were concerned the storm would intensify and didn’t want to risk further delays.
The next day, someone very high up in El Al contacted the travel agent, demanding to know under whose authority the El Al ticket was “given” to Delta to be used. Explaining very slowly that she had no idea how Delta pilfered it, he contacted Delta, which apologized for their “theft.” The El Al representative then called back the agent to apologize over his unfounded accusation, and offered to change their return from London on a nonstop flight. Unfortunately, with the clients landing in London, there was no way to reach them.
To be polite, we’ll assume the client simply forgot he had purchased two separate tickets, and had erased from his memory that El Al owed him nothing. Rather than write a warm letter of gratitude, his agent found in her inbox the following: “Our trip was a real drag, considering we were expecting a comfy business class trip. My poor wife is sick in bed. I want some money back. What’s the deal?” Suffice it to say that remuneration was not forthcoming.
The rule of thumb when one is delayed by weather is not to rely too much on airline personnel. Understanding that they have neither knowledge nor ability to see space on other flights, the aggrieved flyer must lead them through all of the other options.
To wit, the sorry tale of Adi as he tried to depart San Francisco, on his return journey to the Holy Land.
Having enjoyed the resplendent business lounge at United’s Presidents Club in San Francisco, the businessman approached his gate only to be told his flight to Newark had been canceled and that he thus could not make the United connecting flight to Tel Aviv. Keep in mind we’re talking about a $4,500 business class ticket; one would assume he was dealing with the most seasoned airline staff.
Never make that assumption, as the only suggestion was to fly down to Los Angeles, take an overnight flight to Newark and wait eight hours in their business lounge.
Adi asked about other airlines, only to be told nothing was available. A quick phone call to his travel agent elicited the suggestion that perhaps United could consider US Air? Sorry, he was told, no space. United rebooked him to fly out not the next day, nor the day after, but three days later, stating they had no space in business class until then.
Soundly defeated, he returned to his abode in the Bay Area and fired off a terse missive to his travel agent to find a solution. The 10-hour time difference worked to his benefit. His travel consultant offered him Lufthansa via Frankfurt and Swiss Air via Zurich, along with Air Canada via Toronto. All had space in business class. All were partners in the same airline alliance, Star Alliance, of which United is a member. After a short discussion of times, Adi made his choice and his ticket was rebooked.
Now, why nobody at San Francisco airport could have checked those options escapes any intelligent reasoning.
Your instincts and ability to keep your calm when everyone around you is under pressure will go a long way toward solving the problem. Like a tempest in a teapot or as my British clients enjoy saying “a storm in a teacup,” keeping your head when all around you are screaming is the first step.
Take the recent experience of Jason. Managing a large and respected nonprofit, he elected to use his miles to fly business class. A frequent flier who followed the news, he was cognizant that a winter storm was going to hit Boston around the time he was scheduled to fly back. Anticipating that his small plane from Boston to Newark would be the first casualty in a storm, he reached out early, asking if he could make the change.
Unfortunately, until the airline recognizes the severity of a storm, one cannot rebook. As Sunday turned into Monday and morphed into Tuesday, the United flight was delayed. Having already updated his reservation with his email, Jason was getting real-time updates on the storm that was wreaking havoc on his planned departure. Very quickly, he realized he would not be able to make his connecting flight back to Tel Aviv.
He too reached out to his travel agent, who offered a ticket in economy class via Europe. Holding out for his business class seat, he chose to wait to see how quickly the storm would pass. A few hours later, United rebooked him from Boston to Chicago to Newark. Not desiring to spend hours in the air, he was given the suggestion that he take the train down to Newark and pick up the plane there, knowing that Newark Airport was operating as scheduled. Not certain he wanted to take the train, he pontificated and postulated and in the end, asked to postpone the flight back for 24 hours.
Luck was on his side, for his agent found the last seat in business class and United kindly reissued his ticket.
His calm demeanor and constant vigilance of the situation is what led to both the airline and his travel agent doing everything possible to solve his dilemma.
Nobody can control the weather; planes will be delayed and flights will be canceled. Airline call centers will not be able to deal with deluge of phone calls, and the majority of airport personnel are not able to think outside of the box. Your role is simply to keep your head out of the clouds until you’re satisfied with your replacement flights.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem. Send questions and comments to: [email protected]