It’s time for summer air travel. Are you ready? More importantly, is your airline?
As a flight attendant, I dread the summer flying season. The hot, sweaty, manic, busy lines, plus oversold flights, packed check-in counters, flight delays, cancellations, manpower shortages and unhappy passengers add up to one big nightmare. I would give anything to have June and August off, but of course very few airline employees get vacation during the summer.
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 would have to wear an overcoat to hide the fact that I was an airline employee for fear of getting yelled at or having something thrown at me.
I hope it isn’t that bad this summer, but it will be something to watch out for, as many airlines have implemented severe cost-cutting measures and staffs are stretched very thin. Airlines are increasing their flights but not their work assignments. In fact, many airlines will be short pilots, flight attendants, gate agents and mechanics.
Why not hire more? It’s not in the budget. On paper, it may appear that there is sufficient staffing, but experience tells me that in summer you have to make special allowances for contingencies like severe weather, illness, crowded gates, upset passengers, misconnects and crew restrictions.
Many airlines don’t even have enough airplanes. If one airplane happens to have a mechanical failure and is out of service for any length of time, a link in the flying chain is broken, causing many cancellations down the line. I guess the airlines are pretty confidant that won’t happen, but I’m not. Already we’ve seen thunderstorms and security snafus at O’Hare. If this spring is any sign of how things will go this summer, we are in for a turbulent ride.
So, what can you do to ensure an easier summer flight? I’ve been a flight attendant for 17 summer seasons, and here are 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.
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 into 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 airline journey may be no different.
Oh yeah, one more thing: 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.