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Surviving airline turbulence

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Crewmembers are no strangers to airline industry turbulence. We’re accustomed to bankruptcy, mergers, strikes, and operation cessations.

I’ve been through two bankruptcies, and with another airline consolidation in the works, I probably have more of a ride in store.

I guess I’m lucky. One fellow flight attendant has survived seven bankruptcies. Yes, seven. That’s how many times she was furloughed or or released when her employer shut down. She’s 56 years old and bracing for number eight.

With oil prices soaring past $100 a barrel, there are surely more airlines headed towards liquidation. What can you protect yourself during these troubling times? Here are a few tips for flying on bankrupt or financially unstable airlines.

1. It’s all in how you pay. If you book on a bankrupt airline and it goes out of business, most of the time you can get your money back as long as you have paid for your ticket with a credit card as opposed to a debit card. Payments by check or cash should be avoided at all costs.

2. Use the perks while you can. If you have frequent flier points saved up and your airline’s future looks uncertain, use them without delay. If your airline is worthless, so are your points.

3. Go paper. If you have electronic tickets (also known as e-tickets), consider getting your tickets converted to paper tickets at the airline’s ticket counter. There is a much better chance of getting another airline to honor a paper ticket than an electronic ticket, especially if the airline has shut down. Paper tickets are verifiable, but e-ticket receipts are easy to forge and don’t provide proof of payment.

4. Avoid the future. Booking more than 60 days in advance is a mistake and normally not worth that much of a discount. If a steep discount is offered one should enter with caution. I have a friend who got an incredible deal for his whole family on Independence Air three months before the scheduled flight. One month later it went out of business and since he paid by check, his money undoubtedly became part of the CEO’s guaranteed golden parachute.

5. Plan for schedule changes. An airline in bankruptcy can change or cancel a flight within a moment’s notice. Be prepared to deviate or possibly be sent on another carrier to your destination.

6. Look for price match. Some airlines will match flight prices from other carriers, and many times the price difference is not significant. So it’s prudent to compare and to be quite honest, it might be worth an extra $20 or $30 to go with an airline you can trust or has many back up routing options.

7. Buy directly from the airline. Normally, I am all for booking through travel agents as they can sometimes get you special prices, ensure proper connection times, and inform you of your options, but when dealing with refunds, sometimes it is more complicated when you go through a third party.

8. Double-book to protect. Say your airline goes into bankruptcy protection and you already have a ticket. If you have an important event, business meeting or you are booked on a cruise requiring you to be there at a specific date and time, make a refundable back-up reservation on a different airline. You can always cancel and get a refund, but chances are that a financially unstable airline won’t care much about the ticket price of that cruise.

9. Stay clear. If at all possible, avoid the Chapter 11 airlines as this should send up red flags to everyone that they are one stage away from shutting the doors. I know that many airlines survive the Chapter 11 process — but more don’t.

10. Be kind to the employees. I know that you can get stressed out by uncertain flight plans but sayings like, “No wonder this airline is going broke,” and “Hope my club mileage points are safe,” are just cruel and unkind. These employees are probably thinking at the same time, “I hope I can make my mortgage payments.”

When Pan Am closed the doors, it was swift, precise, and sudden. Even though it took 20 years to bring the once prestigious airline down, the final days happened so quickly that a friend of mine was on a layover in South America, woke up, turned on CNN, and learned about the cessation of all operations.

She received no phone call, message, or any communication from the company, which was frightening because the crew’s pick-up for the return flight was just one hour away. Sure enough, when the crew convened, Pan Am was no more, and what followed was a form of sky hitchhiking to get back home.

The other airlines were sympathetic and assisted most down-line employees, but some crews took over a week to get back. Could you imagine worrying about getting home when you have no airline or career to return to? I heard of one person who was enormously in debt and had nothing or no one to return to, so he didn’t.

Good luck to you out there, passengers and employees. It may well be a wild ride. And where the industry will end up, nobody knows.

James Wysong is a veteran flight attendant who has worked with two major international carriers. James recently released a new book, “.” For more information about James, visit his Web site or send him an e-mail.