Image: Stranded travelers
Richard Drew  /  AP
JetBlue Airways Corp. passengers fill the terminal floor as they wait for flights at New York's JFK earlier this year.
By
updated 3/22/2007 4:18:26 PM ET 2007-03-22T20:18:26

It is some kind of nasty irony that the day after US Airways announced that about 100,000 travelers remained stranded due to weather and software problems — that's about nine times the size of my hometown — the very next news cycle featured video of the first-ever arrival on U.S. soil of the new 500-passenger Airbus jumbo jet . Get me requisition — we'll take 200 of those today!

St. Paddy's Day weekend was a truly nasty weekend for air travelers, featuring a couple of lengthy tarmac strandings — Royal Air Maroc took top honors with a 14-hour stranding at JFK — and of course US Airways' complete and utter meltdown.

As usual the airlines blamed the weather, blamed the crowds, blamed it on Cain, you name it, with the implication that neither they nor the passengers could do anything about the problems — and to some extent that was true. But there was a lot more to the story, as we'll get to promptly — and whether we're faced with corporate incompetence or an act of God, the Lord helps those who help themselves. It's clear that passengers are going to have to learn to help themselves, since the airlines certainly aren't going to do it; forthwith we will present tips and tactics to help you avoid an overnight in the airport.

But first, what really went wrong
We've bantered quite a bit here about how the airlines couldn't give a hoot about how little travelers prefer the airport floor to their own beds, about how they routinely blame the weather and other factors for their own mistakes, and how the rash of tarmac strandings, which have occurred on a monthly basis this winter, only intensify the call for a passenger rights bill, or at least some oversight of how these problems are handled. We've beaten that drum enough for now, but it's worth noting that US Airways chose the spring break season to launch a buggy new computer reservations system — without telling anyone.

Eighteen months after merging with America West, the airline staged a secret March 4 switchover to merge the reservations systems as well, a project that reliably developed into a spaghetti bowl of problems that lasted more than a week and a half. Despite hubristic claims that they could make the change without anyone even noticing, extensive delays and check-in problems resulted almost immediately; in the first five days, less than 45 percent of US Airways flights arrived on time.

These problems continued up to and through the onset of the winter storm, and the quadruple whammy of a botched and poorly timed software switch, spring break crowds, bad weather and corporate intransigence stole a lot of living time from a lot of people. And I do mean a lot of people; over 1,000 people slept on the floor in the Philadelphia airport on the first night of the storm.

(Even worse than a night on a linoleum floor was the plight of the DeRespino family, who missed a crucial surgery appointment to due a reservations system snafu.)

And so we get to witness US Airways' utter official banalities like, "It's just a busy time of year with spring break ... and then with that storm, that really put a wrench in the works for a lot of folks" while stranding enough people to match the entire population of Missoula, Mont.

Tips to help you help yourself
OK, I said I wouldn't spend too much time complaining — so let's get on to what you can do about it if (hopefully not "when") it happens to you, whether it's corporate incompetence or weather woes. Here are a few tips to help travelers protect themselves in the event of software switches, spring storms or other airport snafus.

Watch the weather: US Airways' bug-ridden software you can't do anything about, but when it comes to the weather, you don't need to be Vivian Brown to know when a storm might affect your travel. If you are flying in winter, there's no excuse not to know at least a couple days ahead of time that your flight could be threatened. Particularly in the case of a winter storm, weather forecasting is pretty reliable 48-72 hours out; summer storms can be less predictable, as thundercloud formation can occur fairly quickly. But forewarned is forearmed, and it's not like you need to look for red skies in the morning of your travel these days to know that you might have a problem.

Consider getting a hotel reservation: Most hotels don't charge your card until you show up at the front desk, so you can usually safely book a room and cancel if your flight does take off reasonably on time. If you're stuck in an airport without easy Internet access, a good tactic is to have on hand the phone number of your preferred booking Web site.

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They're usually pretty easy to remember: 800-EXPEDIA, 888-TRAVELO, 888-656-4546 (for Orbitz — I can't figure out a good mnemonic for this one, guess they couldn't get ORBITZ1 or the like), etc. If you use this tactic, check out airport hotels first, of course; subsequently look for off-airport hotels that offer shuttle service to the airport so you can ditch your rental car or otherwise count on a ride to the airport without too much trouble or expense.

Preprogram your cell phone: While we're talking about phone number mnemonics, you really don't need an elephant's memory to be able to call a reservation site, a hotel, your airline or any travel service outfit; you just need to program these numbers into your cell phone before your trip starts. Save the numbers for your airline (use the frequent flyer program phone number if you have elite status of any kind, as the service is better), reservation sites, car rental companies that permit drop-offs near you, and your travel agent if you have ever used one — even if they didn't book you into your current jam, they might be able to get you out of it.

Know your options: If it looks like things might get ugly, make sure you know some of the alternative flights on other airlines; if this is too much to remember, just try to remember on which airlines the best flights are available. This way, when 100,000 people are on hold to the US Airways 800 number, you're on the phone with another airline figuring out whether they will honor your tickets and can book you onto the next flight. If you know a few flights on a couple of airlines within a few hours of your original flight, you're way ahead of the game when you try to transfer your ticket to another airline. Ultimately you'll have to get your original airline to sign off on the transfer, but at least you'll get to the airline desk armed with information and maybe even a tentative reservation on the other airline.

A good way to do these searches is to use one of the aggregator sites, the best of which allow you to adjust several parameters on the fly, including airlines displayed (in case your original airline will grant exchanges only on select airlines), flight times (so you can see flights close to your original departure time first, then expand from there), and by alternate airports (perhaps you can get within a reasonable drive of your original airport). You can also filter results by the duration of your itinerary, in case you are looking at absurd routes, connections or layovers on some of your results. These sites can offer a very fluid and customizable view of what is available to you airline by airline, hour by hour, airport by airport.

Check the airline Web site: In the past few major debacles, airline call centers have been utterly crippled by the extremely high call volume. Most airlines have figured out that the Web is a much better way to distribute information, and will have alerts, updates, and sometimes even suggestions on how to proceed.

Call ahead to the airline. This is likely to be your least effective tactic, as in all but the most extreme cases (and sometimes not even then), the airlines won't tell you that your plane is delayed when the entire airport is about to shut down. This is because the airlines fare better if you show up and sleep on the floor than they do if they let you stay in your hotel room an extra day.

As soon as they let you off the hook by saying you don't have to show up at the airport, they're on the hook for refunds, vouchers, hotel rooms, ticket transfers and a huge host of things they simply don't want to give you.

Legislative intervention and passengers rights bills notwithstanding, we should not expect to see significant improvements to the air travel experience any time soon, given that the airlines are once again posting record volume and capacity levels (the measure of how full their planes are) in the air, and apparently getting sloppier all the time on the ground. By arming yourself with information and options, you can take your fate into your own hands, and hopefully avoid having to lay your head on an airport floor for the night.

The Independent Traveler is an interactive traveler's exchange and comprehensive online travel guide for a community of travelers who enjoy the fun of planning their own trips and the adventure of independent travel. You can access our wealth of travel resources and great bargains here at www.independenttraveler.com, or at www.bargainbox.com.

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