Flying the unfriendly skies

Have you heard the latest news? Regardless of when you’re reading this, there’s likely been something in the news about an airline. Fees have gone up (or down), fuel costs have gone up (or down), there’s been another major delay or glitch, or another carrier has gone out of business (or is about to go out of business).

It’s hardly surprising that air travellers are often confused and frustrated. To add insult to injury, passenger rights and customer service departments simply aren’t up to the challenge. What can you do to make air travel easier on yourself? We’ve got some suggestions:

When you book

Check up on the airline. Signs of financial trouble — such as filing for bankruptcy protection — generally aren’t a good thing (though they can prompt last-minute rescues). You can also see if your airline has a good record for being on time — or not.

Most experts note that smaller airlines are more likely to be affected than larger ones who are often saved through bailouts or mergers (like Air Canada’s rocky past).

Leave earlier or later. Avoid travelling on the busiest days of the year (like around holidays) and you’ll skip the hassles associated with crowded airports and crowded skies. Some experts suggest to book a flight earlier in the day — that way delays don’t have a chance to pile up.

Get an advanced seat assignment. Passengers without an assigned seat are more likely to be bumped when a flight is overbooked. Of course, most airlines charge for this convenience but the fee might be worth it if your plans don’t allow for flexibility.

Book with a travel agent you trust. At the very least you’ll have someone with the experience and connections to help you make new arrangements when things don’t go as planned. In addition, Ontario, Quebec or British Columbia residents have additional protection against things like airline insolvency (i.e. going out of business) because these provinces have consumer fund protection systems in place.

Pay with plastic. Credit cards offer the best protection because you can dispute the charges with your company within sixty days of them appearing on your statement. If you pay by cash or cheque and your airline goes out of business, your only recourse may be to file charges in court. This process could drag on for years, and there might not be any cash left once creditors get their share.

Know the rules. Is there a hurricane guarantee? Does the airline offer any customer service guarantees? What compensation are you entitled to if you are bumped? What happens if your flight is cancelled? Customers don’t have many rights, especially if bad weather is the cause, but knowing the policies can help you in a dispute. Each airline is different, so you’ll need to know the policy for your carrier.

It’s a good idea to keep track of all receipts, paper work, policies and arrangements and keep them handy when you travel.

Read your travel insurance policy carefully. What’s included and excluded? Does your policy cover severe weather and airline insolvency? Shop around and read the fine print.

Also, take care if you’re making the travel arrangements yourself rather than through an agent. Without insurance, you’ll likely still be on the hook for your accommodations, car rentals or other extras if there’s no way to get to your destination.

Keeps tabs on the news and weather as your departure date approaches. Major events like tropical cyclones, severe storm systems, strikes and other disruptions will usually be in the news and government travel advice before they hit. If there’s trouble coming, you’ll want to be proactive about making other arrangements.

When you pack

Familiarize yourself with security procedures and luggage restrictions, especially if you’re not a frequent traveller. Know what’s forbidden in your luggage and carry-on, and follow the liquid and gel guidelines. (The Transportation Security Administration’s website has tips and advice).

Pack right. With the threats of lost luggage and fees for checked baggage, more travellers are carrying-on instead of checking bags. However, with limited space on board many travellers are forced to check their bags at the last minute. Make sure you have easy access to any valuables, medications or essential items in your carry-on just in case.

Stay within the limits. Fees for oversized and overweight luggage can add a significant cost. Find out what requirements your airline has and follow them to the letter — even if it means getting out a measuring tape and a set of scales. Oversized carry-on bags may be the first to be checked.

Carry a phone list. Numbers to include: your travel agent, your travel insurance company, the airline’s reservation number and your credit card company.

For more tips on packing, see Pack light and save hassles.

When you travel

Call to confirm your reservation ahead of time. You’ll want to know if there are any changes to the schedule and adjust your plans accordingly.

Check-in online. Most airlines let you do this up to 24 hours before your flight. It’s an opportunity to snag a seat assignment and get on the stand-by list for upgrades or earlier flights.

Plan to arrive early. As a rule, the last to check in is the first to get bumped — especially if you’ve got a discount ticket. Even if you have an assigned seat, the airline may release it to someone else if you don’t show up on time. Allow for time to compensate for severe weather and traffic delays.

Get on the list. If you aren’t given a seat assignment when you check in, make sure to get yourself on the stand-by list. Airlines do reserve a certain number of seats for airport check-ins, but they can fill up fast.

Know what’s going on. Do a little research to find out what other flights are leaving for your destination on the same day as yours. Having a back-up plan or some options to suggest can help out at the customer service counter.

Exercise caution when offering to be bumped. Airlines still overbook flights anticipating that people will cancel or fail to show up. If you’ve got some flexibility in your travel plans and don’t mind some extra waiting, you can take advantage of the situation. Just make sure you’re getting a good deal — compensation packages for volunteers aren’t regulated. Consider: is the compensation worth the time and hassle? Get the details in writing and make sure the airline delivers on its promises.

When you’re stuck

Act fast. Get on the phone to your travel agent or travel service provider and start the process of getting a new flight. It may take some time to make new arrangements, and any alternative flights or discounted fares will fill up on a first come, first serve basis.

If your airline goes under or on strike, check and see what arrangements have been made with other carriers. While other airlines aren’t required by law to honour tickets, some will extend this courtesy or offer discount fares to those affected.

Look for deals. Last minute tickets could wind up costing you more than your original fare. Look for any deals or discounts, and see if anyone is offering stand-by seats.

Skip the line. You know there’s going to be line ups at the customer service desk, and flights are going to fill up fast. If you don’t need the help of a “real person”, try the self-serve kiosk instead or call your airline’s reservation number.

Contact your credit card company. It’s better to report a problem sooner rather than later if the services you were promised don’t materialize.

The best (and the probably the hardest) thing you can do when there’s a problem is to keep a level head. It’s easy to panic or get angry, and chances are everyone around you is reacting the same way. However, the people who will be helping you resolve the problem aren’t at fault and they’re having a bad day too. Being patient and polite (even if you don’t feel it) is more likely to get you what you want than being rude or threatening.

Sources and further reading:
Transport Canada: Tips for Travellers
Airline Bumping – What You Need to Know (from the American Society of Travel Agents)
Fly-Rights: A Consumer Guide to Air Travel (From the US Department of Transportation)

Photo © John Sigler

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