Image: Summer flying
Lindsey Parnaby  /  EPA
Planning on taking to the skies this summer? Flight attendant and columnist James Wysong says the traveling season is bound to be bumpy, and suggests packing a lot of patience.
By James Wysong Travel columnist
updated 5/25/2007 11:59:39 AM ET 2007-05-25T15:59:39

Last year, I predicted a bumpy summer for air travel. Sure enough, the season experienced a record number of cancellations and a lower customer satisfaction rating, but overall the airline industry did better than I expected. I think that's because so many airlines were in such dire financial difficulty that the employees were in last-ditch survival mode.

Will we get the same lift this year? Don't count on it.

What's different from last year?

1. Going mad. Most airline employees are angry that their paychecks and pensions have been slashed while the CEOs are raking in record salaries and stock options. It seems that sacrifices have not been shared by top management, and that doesn't sit well with the frontline employees.

2. Understaffed. Many airlines are short on employees, and have been for some time, but this year they are especially short on pilots. A flight can operate — poorly — with a shortage of flight attendants, gate agents and mechanics, but there is no flying at all without a full complement up front. The airlines are counting on pilots to pick up extra hours to make up for the summer load. Let's see ... less money, no pension, CEO making a record salary? Can you read the tea leaves here? My prediction is that many flights will cancel because of this pilot shortage.

3. Overcrowded skies. Now that the airline industry is beginning to bounce back, many airlines are adding new routes. New routes mean more traffic, and more traffic means more delays and cancellations. New flights also call for the hiring of more employees, something management seems not to understand.

4. Sold out. Airlines are already selling out flights for the summer. This is great for the industry's per-seat revenue numbers, but what happens when a flight cancels? You can't put the passengers on the next flight when there are no seats available. Sold-out flights create a domino effect, which leaves many passengers fuming by the end of the day.

As a flight attendant, I dread the summer flying season. The hot, sweaty, manic, busy lines, plus the oversold flights, packed check-in counters, flight delays, cancellations, manpower shortages and unhappy passengers all add up to one big nightmare. I would give anything to have June and August off.

If I am gun-shy as this season approaches, it's because I think of the summer of 2000, which was the worst summer travel season I have ever experienced. That year, work slowdowns and flight cancellations caused a giant customer-service fiasco. I was yelled at so many times that I started wearing an overcoat in the terminal to disguise the fact that I worked for an airline.

So, what can you do to ensure an easier summer flight? I've been a flight attendant for 18 summer seasons, and once again I offer you my "Top 10 Summer Flying Tips."

1. Skycap. Instead of waiting three hours to check in a bag, give it to the skycap. It may cost you a couple of bucks per bag but believe me, halfway through the check-in line you will wish you had.

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2. Electronic check-in. Some flights are eligible for online check-in. By avoiding the check-in mess, you can go directly to the security mess.

3. Early bird. Take an early flight. As the day progresses, there is a greater likelihood of flight cancellations and weather delays.

4. Bring a jacket. Some of the coldest flights I have ever flown have been in the summer, when the pilots overcompensate for the heat by cranking up the air conditioning to Siberian levels.

5. Don't stop. Pay the extra money and book the nonstop flight if available. You may get a good deal by connecting through Chicago, but believe me you will pay for it later.

6. Be prepared. Don't have something crucial planned for the first two days of your trip. For example, if your cruise leaves on Friday morning, don't leave Thursday night.

7. Make the call. Call the airline before you leave for the airport to make sure your flight is on time. Sign up for e-check, a service many airlines provide; it will call your cell phone to inform you of any delays. If you are being picked up at your destination, make sure your driver has a number to call to verify your arrival time.

8. Do unto others. Treat other travelers and airline employees as you would like to be treated yourself. Put yourself in their shoes and realize that you are not the only person in this world.

9. Stick to the favorites. If you have had better experiences on one airline than on others, stick with it, even if it is a little more expensive or leaves at a less convenient time. Your judgment is key.

10. Pack a lot of patience. Don't let small inconveniences ruin the whole trip. Things go wrong in life and your airplane trip may be no different.

Oh yeah, one more thing: I know my summer prediction is a bit gloomy, but try to have fun. Isn't that why you travel in the summer in the first place?

Happy summer flying. Maybe I will be on board with some of you. I will be the one with the goofy smile wearing the polyester suit and the tie that matches the curtains.

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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