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The agony of air travel

It’s official. The year-end numbers just released by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) confirm what most of us already knew: Flying was a nightmare last year. Any worse and it would’ve made it into the record books as the worst year ever.
Image: Air travelers wait for flights to resume.
More than 1 in 4 U.S. flights were delayed in 2007, DOT figures show. While delays and cancellations are a part of life, columnist Rob Lovitt says you can take precautions.Nick Ut / AP file

It’s official. The year-end numbers just released by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) confirm what most of us already knew: Flying was a nightmare last year. Any worse and it would’ve made it into the record books as the worst year ever.

Consider the numbers:

The airline industry’s on-time performance rate for arrivals dropped to 73.4 percent last year, down from 75.4 percent in 2006 and depressingly close to the all-time low of 72.6 percent scored in 2000.

The airlines mishandled more than 4.4 million pieces of luggage, up from 4 million and roughly equivalent to one bag going astray on every full 737-700 flight during the year.

Almost 64,000 passengers were involuntarily “bumped” last year, an increase of 8.3 percent (on a per-emplaned-passenger basis) and the second-worst showing since 1996.

You could complain — according to DOT, more than 13,000 people did last year, up 58 percent from 2006 — but, let’s face it, that won’t get your time, bags or boarding pass back.

Instead, you’d be better served trying to ensure that such mishaps don’t happen to you. And since 2008 is already looking sketchy, now is a good time to revisit the rules of defensive flying.

Dodging delays
Conventional wisdom says to fly early in the day because of the cascading effect one delayed flight can have on others. That’s still generally the case, but it’s also true that on-time performance — or the lack thereof — is a function of many factors:

Know your airports: Operated by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, provides specific tips on getting in and out of 29 major airports around the country. Avoid arriving into Logan after 5 p.m. Sunday–Thursday when incoming flights tend to back up, for example, and consider leaving Las Vegas on Tuesday or Saturday when check-in and security lines are at their shortest.

Know your flights: Fly non-stop — even if it means paying a premium. Every takeoff and landing is another opportunity for things to go wrong. If you must make a connection, don’t be suckered by unrealistically short layovers. You may be able to get across O’Hare or DFW in 30 minutes, but it won’t do you a bit of good if your inbound flight is an hour late taking off.

Know thy enemy: The DOT report also lists the industry’s worst offenders, i.e., those flights that are late 70 and 80 percent of the time. Do not book these flights — especially if you need to make a connection at the other end.

Bumps are for chumps
You paid for a seat; you shouldn’t be involuntarily bumped from it just because the airline overbooked your flight. (Voluntarily giving up your seat for cash or a ticket voucher is another matter — just remember that with today’s packed-to-the-max planes, there’s no telling when an available seat might appear.)

Pick a seat: Always make a seat assignment when you make a reservation. If an airline can’t find volunteers, travelers without seat assignments are the first to get bumped. Checking in early — e.g., online as soon it’s permitted — will also provide some protection.

Know your airline: The Denied Boarding section of the Air Travel Consumer Report ranks the nation’s major airlines for both voluntary and involuntary bumps. JetBlue, for example, almost never overbooks its flights, while regional flyers Comair and Atlantic Southeast are notorious for doing so.

Know your rights: DOT provides a full explanation of the rules governing bumps, including compensation, in its Consumer Guide to Air Travel. Similar information can also be found on your airline’s contract of carriage.

No more mishandled bags
This no time to get lazy about luggage. Lost, delayed, damaged or pilfered — the airlines reported that 7.03 bags went awry last year for every 1,000 passengers. To avoid becoming one of the statistics:

Fly non-stop (revisited): When connecting flights are delayed, guess what happens to the bags in their cargo holds? In fact, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), 61 percent of mishandled bags end up that way during connections.

Arrive early: Baggage check-in requirements vary by airline and airport — most are 30 to 45 minutes for domestic flights — but it’s a safe bet that if you have to dash for a plane, your luggage won’t make the trip.

Be tag aware: Remove all old baggage tags and confirm that the new one has the correct airport code for your destination. When you’re flying to JFK, you don’t want your bags ending up in GFK (Grand Forks, N.D.) or, worse, KGF (Karaganda, Kazakhstan). Ticketing errors, says IATA, account for nine percent of mishandled bags.

Go carry-on-only: The single smartest thing you can do to make sure your bags go where you go. After all, if you don’t give the airlines your luggage, they can’t lose it in the first place.