Image: Closed airport
Stew Milne  /  AP
A highway sign on Interstate-95 southbound alerts motorists of the closure of T.F. Green Airport in Warwick, R.I. The airport was closed after a temporary construction wall collapsed under pressure from the high winds associated with the spring storm that hit the East Coast.
By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 4/16/2007 11:41:15 AM ET 2007-04-16T15:41:15

Your flight has been canceled. It happens to everyone sooner or later.

What you do next is important. Two minutes spent cursing the gods could mean the difference between getting home a few hours late and hitchhiking cross-country on standby. So it pays to know when a cancellation is coming.

In an earlier column I gave advice on what to do after your flight is canceled. Now I want to share some insider tips to help you figure out when trouble is on its way.

Here are 10 early-warning signs that your flight may be canceled or seriously delayed. They all require you to use your powers of observation. Let's start with things to look out for before you board the plane.

1. Shocking volume. You see lightning and hear the thunder. If you can hear the rattle through the airport windows, you know the storm is too close for takeoff. Your flight may not be canceled, but you should prepare for a lengthy delay. Congestion can back up the airport for hours.

2. Decisions, decisions. The gate agent makes an announcement that the flight is on a "decision" and that you will get new departure information shortly. "Decision" means that Operation Control is determining if the airplane can go or not. It also means you should start deciding on a backup plan.

3. Not even going to try. The gate agent takes down the departure time from the marquee at the gate and leaves it blank. If they aren't even going to estimate the new departure time, you know it's going to be long wait.

4. Let's all have lunch. Meal vouchers are distributed for airport dining. The good airlines still do this as a matter of course, and it may mean nothing more than a short wait. But considering the financial difficulty the industry is going through, when the lower-budget airlines decide to feed you, you know the situation is serious.

5. De-plane truth. You're at the gate waiting for the boarding announcement and you see your flight crew (pilots or flight attendants) start deplaning. This is almost a sure sign of impending cancellation. Why? Because the airline notifies the crew first so they can report to Crew Scheduling for possible reassignment.

Departure problems can also arise after you have boarded the plane. You're stuck now, but you can still use your cell phone to change plans if the situation starts to look really dicey. Here are five more things to look for.

6. Like cops at a donut shop. A group of mechanics comes on board, and the flight attendants serve them all coffee. This usually means a big problem and you should not expect a quick departure.

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7. Distractions, distractions. The flight attendants start the movie when you are still at the gate. It's a nice gesture and will take your mind off upcoming missed connections, but you should probably skip the show and use your time to call customer service to discuss other options.

8. Heeding the call. You are taxiing and the flight attendant gets a call from the cockpit. Look for an expression of frustration or disappointment. Usually what will follow is an announcement from the captain that you are returning to the gate. This usually means a serious problem has arisen.

9. Kvetching in the back. You have to arrange to intercept this early-warning sign. Next time you are delayed at the gate and the seat belt sign is off, get up and walk to the back galley. Now listen. If flight attendants are talking about their contract obligations and how this flight is going to ruin their days off, you're in trouble. But if they are talking about their layover plans, there is still hope for a takeoff.

10. Duck, duck, goose. The first class concierge comes on board and takes a few VIP passengers off with their bags. This usually means they are taking them to a different flight that will get them to their destination a lot faster. This may seem unfair, but VIPs are the airline's bread and butter. You'll have to fend for yourself, but you should think about doing the same.

Cancellations are a fact of life in the airline industry. Throwing a temper tantrum will only increase the time it takes to get where you're going. Don't join the crowd staring at the departure board in disbelief. Instead, be a smart traveler. Pay attention, have a backup plan, and keep your cell phone handy. With a little luck, you'll be on your way in no time.

James Wysong has worked as a flight attendant with two major international carriers during the past fifteen years. He is the author of the "The Plane Truth: Shift Happens at 35,000 Feet" and "The Air Traveler's Survival Guide." For more information about James or his books, please visit his Web site or e-mail him.

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