How to survive the overcrowded skies

The summer is in its final stretch, and after Labor Day weekend, you’d think you could say goodbye to overpopulated airplanes until Thanksgiving.

Take it from me, you can’t.

In fact, the opposite will probably be true. Most airlines are dramatically reducing capacity in an attempt to cut sky-high fuel prices. They are retiring their biggest gas guzzlers and reducing flights to unprofitable destinations in an attempt to stave off impending financial doom.

Ironically, while these moves may seem clever, they could end up costing more than they are saving because of issues such as pilot seniority, retraining on different aircraft, fewer available aircraft as replacements for those with mechanical trouble, furloughs and sick pay.

But that is the airlines’ problem; my goal is to help you navigate your way through the packed skies and ease your journey this fall.

Imagine that the unimaginable happens and a flight cancels for whatever reason. The passengers from that flight will be booked on the next oversold flight, and when there is no room on that flight, it will spill over to the next and so on. This is called the trickle-down effect, but in this case the trickle will be more like a steady stream and eventually a raging river.

I foresee this scenario occurring this fall much more frequently than ever in the past. Are you ready for it?

Here are 10 tips for flying the crowded skies:

1. Don’t carry on
If you think that there will be plenty of overhead space for that second bag, you’re probably wrong. Full flights equal full overhead bins. If you have more than one bag, check your bulkiest item. If you have to pay a small nominal fee, it will be worth it, to avoid the hassle of finding a space.

2. Watch out for the bump
When there are too many people and not enough seats, the airline has to offer bribes for passengers to take later flights (getting bumped). If you are in a position where you could take a later flight and you want to get compensation for future tickets, you could volunteer. If you don’t want to get bumped, get your seat assignment ahead of time or show up early. Your chances of getting bumped dramatically decrease once you have your specific seat booked.

3. Score an upgrade
Say the airlines have 150 seats in economy and 20 seats in first class but 165 passengers show up. If there are seats available up front, the airline is going to upgrade as many people as there are seats. The biggest upgrade factors include being a member of the airline’s frequent flier program, being appropriately dressed, and it never hurts to be nice to the gate agent. Throw in a little, “If you need volunteers for upgrades, I would be more than happy to give up my economy seat.” It may sound cheesy but you would be surprised how many times that works. I know a business flier who always buys a bottle of water and gives it to the gate agent when checking in. They say that they don’t take bribes but he is upgraded about 35 percent of the time.

4. Get along
Many passengers get claustrophobic, grumpy or uncomfortable in crowded situations. You may be packed in like sardines, have an overweight person on your right spilling into your seat, and to the left you have a passenger who boarded with a smelly burger and fries, but try to make the best of it. Normally, you would try to find an open seat, but it probably won’t be available. Instead of fuming for the entire journey, laugh and thank the heavens that you’re not on a 16-hour flight to China. Unless, of course, you are on one.

5. Have a plan B
The future of many airlines is uncertain, so if you book far in advance and the airline you are scheduled on goes into bankruptcy or on strike, immediately book a refundable ticket on a different airline, as your options become dramatically less as your flight date approaches.

6. Miss your connection
If you have the option of flying nonstop to your destination and it doesn’t cost you dramatically more, pay the difference. Connections are generally a pain, as they risk cancellation, delays and baggage loss.

7. Expect a few snags
It is amazing to me how many frequent fliers expect a hassle-free flying experience and are shocked when problems arise. We all know that flying is far from perfect so don’t be a negative Nelly. But maybe you should be pleasantly surprised if your experience proceeds smoothly.

8. Avoid space-available travel
Say you get a deal on a ticket, or you know an airline employee who offers you a pass. You are what the airline calls an SA, or space available. If there is no seat available, you are in store for a long wait, if you get on at all. Stay clear of space available tickets this fall at all costs.

9. Bring your own entertainment
Some airlines are removing video equipment in an attempt to save on fuel weight and the charges associated with onboard movies. Bring an extra DVD or two, a video iPod or — here’s a novel idea — a book. As always, I strongly recommend a pair of earplugs as a must-bring item if you value a nap.

10. Be patient with the impatient
even more these days. One person is attempting to do the job of four and getting paid less, I might add. While that is not your fault, be the bigger person and put yourself in their shoes if they seem a bit snippy or cold.

If you are flying this fall, I want to wish you good luck and encourage you to telling me of your experience. Hope my tips help!

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.