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4 secrets to cope with airline downsizing

As carriers cut back, research and planning can get you to your destination

Jul 21, 2008

Is your flight about to be canceled?

Joshua Peterman’s was. He recently bought three Delta Air Lines tickets from Seattle to Bangkok. But a few weeks ago, Travelocity e-mailed him with word that his flights were “no longer confirmed” — a nice way of saying he had no reservations.

“The only option that they’ve offered is a refund, which is useless at this point, since the tickets are twice as expensive as they were when I purchased them,” he says. “Delta is claiming their codeshare partner changed the schedule and that they’re under no obligation to offer us new travel dates unless the partner airline has tickets with the exact same fare code.”

In other words, Peterman didn’t pay enough for his ticket.

This scenario is likely to repeat itself more in the coming months. Airlines have canceled twice as many flights in the first half of 2008 as they did last year — about 65,000 — and they have no intention of tapping the brakes. In fact, domestic airlines are expected to cut the number of flights by up to 15 percent during the next year, which is the biggest reduction in service since 9/11, and maybe ever.

But these cancellations don’t have to ruin your trip. I contacted Travelocity to find out why Peterman had been left high and dry by Delta. A Travelocity spokesman promised to find out what had happened to his flight. “Regardless of the outcome, our agents shouldn’t be telling a customer to call the carrier,” he added. They might take a moment to read their customers’ e-mail signatures, too. Peterman is a lawyer.

Delta’s contract of carriage — the legal agreement between passengers and the airline — says its published schedules are “not guaranteed” and that it may, without notice, “substitute alternate carriers or aircraft.” But I can’t find a reference to Delta’s fare code cop-out. The airline, with Travelocity’s help, should have rebooked Peterman on another flight to Bangkok.

There’s a right way to do this. JetBlue had to reschedule one of my flights a few weeks ago. And every time it did, it sent me an e-mail and when I called, a friendly reservations agent offered options, not excuses. The same can’t be said for other airlines that either fail to notify their customers or take a my-way-or-the-runway approach — either you take our flight or we’ll issue an involuntary refund.

Surviving the summer of airline cancellations is possible. Here are a few helpful strategies:

Call your airline to confirm your flight at least two weeks in advance
The conventional wisdom used to be to phone your airline, or check online, a day before you leave. But with this fall’s unprecedented flight cutbacks, that time has increased to at least two weeks. Why? Because if you have to take the refund, the two-week window for advance purchases will still be open. Remember, as you get closer to your travel date, the cost of your ticket goes up. The most expensive tickets are called “walk-up” fares because you literally walk up to the ticket counter on the day of the flight to buy them. Calling two weeks early will prevent you from having to shell out big bucks for one of these overpriced tickets.

It’s important to contact the air carrier directly, because things can get lost in the translation between you and your agent. If you don’t believe me, talk to Wendy Fisher, who recently booked a flight through Expedia from Paris to Amsterdam. Her airline canceled her flight, and Expedia rebooked her on a different flight that she didn’t particularly like, charging her more money (which it shouldn’t have done). Then, when she showed up at the airport, the carrier insisted she didn’t have a ticket — only a reservation — and forced her to buy an entirely new ticket. Expedia claims she was a no-show for her flight. Repeated letters to the president of Expedia were met with form responses. If Fisher had phoned her airline, she probably wouldn’t have had to pay for a second flight.

Know your airline’s contract of carriage

Generally speaking, an airline contract says you’re entitled to a refund or to be rescheduled on a flight of the airline’s choosing when your flight is changed. But not all of them do. For example, United Airlines allows for a refund only if your flight has been changed by more than two hours (at least that’s how I interpret Rule 240 of its contract — but then again, I’m no lawyer).

A little contract knowledge can take you a long way. Tim Strigenz, a producer for a video game company in El Cerrito, Calif., bought a ticket for his wife to fly from Tampa, Fla., to Eugene, Ore., on US Airways this spring. Then the airline started cutting flights to Eugene, to the point where she was left with a reservation on the sole remaining flight, and a take-it-or-leave it ultimatum from US Airways. “Her first choice would be a United codeshare flight — and if they are unwilling to budge on that, a refund,” he told me. I contacted US Airways on Strigenz behalf and it did not respond. The contract is pretty clear about his rights — his wife is entitled to a refund, but probably not a rebooking on the codeshare flight.

By the way, I think the contracts could stand to be revised. When an airline cancels your flight, it should either offer you a new flight that works for you or a refund at the going rate for a ticket. That way, you can afford to fly on another airline.

Work with a good travel agent

At the risk of contradicting myself, let me add that your best protection against a cancellation disaster is working with a competent travel agent. Yes, you’ll pay an additional booking fee of around $50 per ticket. But agents know what you’re up against and they have ways of making sure that your trip won’t get ruined by a flight problem. There are at least a hundred other reasons to hire a reliable travel professional — I’ve outline a few of them here — but the bottom line is, you can’t go wrong with the right agent.

If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, here are a few tools you’ll want to consider. First, sign up for e-mail alerts from your airline and online agency, and be sure to whitelist their messages. Alerts tend to get stuck in spam filters. Also, check with a service like FlightStats which offers both real-time and historical flight information. And keep an eye on the latest travel news to see which airlines are cutting back their flights.

Book less cancellation-prone flights, if possible

It’s not easy to predict whether your flight will be canceled before your departure date, but you can make an educated guess. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics is a terrific resource for someone who wants to connect the dots. For example, it publishes a list of the most-delayed flights and of holiday flight delays. (Here’s the chart of last Thanksgiving, for example.) You can look up detailed cancellation statistics by carrier right here. It also helps to know that airlines are reducing service to certain destinations, such as Las Vegas and Orlando. The reason? Too many deal-hungry leisure travelers fly to those places, and not enough full-fare-paying business travelers.

By combining available government statistics with what you can cull from news reports, it’s possible to accurately predict the status of your next flight. For example, I recently had a flight scheduled from Orlando to Stewart International Airport near Newburgh, N.Y. When AirTran announced plans to end service to that airport in September, I began to suspect that my flight schedule might be changed. It was. If you see your airport in the news, and have that “I wonder if ...” moment, don’t wait for your airline to call you. Call it first and stay on it. And if you are in the process of planning a flight, book away from a cancellation-prone airline or airport.

Just because airlines are slashing their schedules and laying off employees this year doesn’t mean you have to become a victim, too. With a little research, planning and a lucky guess or two, you can get to your destination.

As carriers cut back, research and planning can get you to your destination
D.j. Peters / AP file

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