Flying the Unfriendly Skies This Summer?

070718_airplane_Rene_MansiF.jpgThe summer of 2007 is shaping up to be one of the worst ever for air travel. Delays, oversold or canceled flights, lost luggage, interminable security lines, and then there’s the whole passport mess, which isn’t the airlines’ fault but just adds to the angst. Here are some tips you’ll need to know if your summer vacation turns out to be the vacation from hell.

Be organized

How can I avoid delays at security?
There isn’t a lot you can do about other people snarling up the line because they don’t know the drill, but you can ensure that you don’t cause unnecessary delays by reading up on the latest information from the Transportation Security Administration about what can’t be brought aboard an aircraft. Also, you can get a feel for the amount of time typically spent on security lines by using the handy-dandy tool of the TSA Web site that lists the average wait times at security check points at major U.S. airports.

What can I do to avoid flight delays?
Fly early in the morning. Flight-delaying summer storms tend to occur in the late afternoon. You might also book flights on Tuesday or Thursday. These are the days when fewer people are travelling and congestion in the skies is at its lowest. Book non-stop flights whenever possible, and before you book that flight use the information found on the incredibly useful Avoid Delays Web site, which is maintained by air traffic controllers, to fine-tune your travel plans.

How can I avoid getting bumped?
When a flight is overbooked, airlines give preference to frequent fliers and those who paid full fare. After that, they start bumping the people holding the cheapest tickets in order of who checked in last. So show up on time or early, check in as soon as possible either at the automated kiosks or the airline’s front desk — if you wait until you’re at the gate to check in and are delayed in security you could find yourself on the bump list. If you really want to avoid getting bumped, don’t book a flight if you can’t get an advance seat assignment — on most airlines this indicates that the flight is nearing capacity.

Know Rule 240

What are my rights if I do get bumped?
When you buy a ticket from an airline, you are entering into a contract with that airline. Every airline details its contractual agreements with passengers in a document called “Contract of Carriage.” This document is on all of the airlines’ Web sites, and is not fun reading. But the only rule you want to read is Rule 240, which will lay out the airline’s obligations to get you and your bags to your destination and your rights if they don’t. It’s a good idea to print out a copy of an airline’s Rule 240 to bring to the airport with you.

Airline agreements vary, so do a search for “Rule 240” and your airline’s name to find the information you need. Whatever they offer, you should receive your compensation at the ticket counter, and you can usually demand it be paid in check/credit card refund instead of a ticket voucher for a future flight. Airlines often offer vouchers that are double the amount of the cash compensation they’re willing to pay, but check the fine print and make sure you’ll be able to use it before the voucher expires.

If my flight gets canceled, what should I do?
See above regarding your airline’s Rule 240. Be aware, though, that if flights are canceled due to weather, acts of God, war, strikes, and other events that are classified as “force majeure” in Rule 240, the airline doesn’t have to do anything but refund the cost of your ticket. Since weather and God’s whims cause most flight cancellations, anything the airline does in the way of rebooking you on a competitor’s flight, offering you vouchers for meals, hotels, or other perks is out of the goodness of their hearts.

Flight cancellations affect many people, so seats on the next flight out are likely to fill up fast. Most airlines use a rebooking program to find open seats on other flights. If you purchased a cheap ticket, you might have better luck rebooking yourself by calling your travel agent or the airline rather than waiting for the computer system to assign you a seat. If you really need to get to wherever ASAP, check out your options with an online booking site, though last-minute tickets tend to be expensive.

Someone lose your luggage?

What should I do if my luggage is lost?
Report it missing at the airport. Most bags are found within 48 hours, and the airline will usually deliver the bags to you. Until your bags resurface, the airline will pay for “interim expenses.” If your bag is gone for good, the airline is liable for up to $2,500 for every piece of checked luggage lost on a domestic flight, and about $635 per bag on international flights. But to get that refund you’ll need to provide an inventory of what was in each bag and receipts. Yes, and good luck with that! Note that the airline will depreciate the value of not-new items.

Given that baggage mishandling complaints have risen by 30% over the past year, and some airlines are now charging or considering charging fees for slightly overweight and extra bags, you may want to have your luggage shipped to your destination, either by a private delivery service like Luggage Free or by Federal Express. Luggage Free will deliver a 30-pound suitcase from NYC to Los Angeles by 3 p.m. the next day for $167 (including tax, surcharge and pick up). FedEx charges $135.86 for essentially the same service (55 cents per $100 declared value over $500), and if you can ship your bags a day earlier, FedEx’s basic two-day service is only $99.54.

What should I do if something is missing from my checked luggage?
The best thing to do is to file a claim with the airline before you leave the airport, which unfortunately means checking your bags before you leave. Check the airline’s Web site — either under the “contract of carriage” section or baggage/customer service before you leave so you know the drill. Get all claims in writing. If you need to contact the TSA to file a complaint, call 866-289-9673. Obviously it’s far safer to put expensive things (cameras, computers, jewelry) in your carry-on bag.

Michelle Delio

Photo credit: ©Istockphoto/ René Mansi