Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Polar Vortex Of Aviation Misery

So far, 2014 has been one big reminder that bands should never tour the Northern Hemisphere in months ending in "-ary". As I write this, several musicians I know are still trying to get to their first gigs of the year, with more travel misery on the way. I've been there more times than I like to think about, so the whole thing has been painful to watch.

One thing we mere humans have zero control over is the weather, and traveling humans have even less control over the transport providers' response to it. Some things are to be expected: when a blizzard closes a major airport, the ripple effects are going to be felt throughout the entire system. (Also, if you live in the Northeast Corridor, you know to expect that Amtrak will have severe delays the minute the first flake hits the ground.) But over the past few days, even cynical me has been surprised by some of the things that have occurred out there (JetBlue, seriously?!).

The best we can do is prepare for the worst, and hope for the best. If you simply must fly to gigs in parts of the world where winter weather happens (which this year, seems to be all 48 contiguous United States), there are a few things that can hopefully minimize the misery should the elements conspire against you.

Plan to get there early.

Got a gig you need to fly to on January 15? Book your ticket for early in the day on the 13th, to build in a cushion for yourself in case things go wrong.

Fly South.

If your flight path requires a connection, try to connect in warmer climes if possible. Even if it means a longer layover in Dallas than you would have in Chicago, your chances are much higher that you'll get to your destination if you avoid going through the Arctic to get there.

Become a weather junkie.

This time of year, you can't pay close enough attention to the weather forecast. Ignore the media hype, and look at the facts. Install a weather app on your smartphone, and bookmark the National Weather Service pages for both your hometown and your destination (and the airport you're connecting through, if applicable). If the 10-day forecast for you, your destination, or connecting airport starts to look ominous, keep an eye on your airline. If things look bad enough, your airline might offer fee-free ticket changes ahead of the storm, which brings me to ...

Punt if you have to.

If you built in the cushion indicated above, you should have leeway to take advantage of an airline's offer to change your ticket if you can. Changing ahead of time may drastically reduce the hours you spend sitting around the airport, and will also create leeway for another passenger to be able to get home sooner. It's pay-it-forward, flying style.

Get creative.

If you do find yourself in airport-cancellation hell, a little flexibility can go a long way. If you are lucky enough to be able to carry everything on with you, you can end up with more options than your fellow travelers when it comes time to rebook. Can you get to another nearby airport to get a flight out from there? Can you fly into another airport and drive the rest of the way to your destination? Hell, can you just drive where you're going? (Sometimes, that will get you there sooner, even if the roads are dicey.)

Don't wait.

Don't wait hours in line to rebook. The second things start to look like they're going south, get on the line to your airline's rebooking department. (If you belong to a frequent-flier program, call the number on the back of your membership card - often, it's a different number than the one where everybody else is on hold.) At the same time, Tweet @ your airline to see if you get a quicker response that way. Then go for the trifecta - stand in the rebooking line while you're on the phone and waiting to hear back on Twitter. You won't be the only one, trust me.

Spring for the club.

If the problems you're anticipating are at your connecting airport, buy a day pass to your airline's lounge there, if there is one. That way, if you end up with a lengthy delay you'll have somewhere comfy (with free wifi!) to hang out. And better yet, if you need to be rebooked, the front desk staff in the lounge will be able to help you without your having to wait in line or on hold. On a bad travel day, that $50 is money well-spent.

Stand your ground -- nicely.

In a Snowpocalypse, when the airlines are cancelling flights by the hundreds, they will do everything they can to lose the least amount of money they can. Just in the past few days I have heard stories of airlines fabricating phantom "mechnical issues" in order to get out of giving hotel and food vouchers to stranded passengers, and coming up with specious reasons to charge passengers change fees even after flights that were cancelled due to weather. The key is to stand your ground, and don't let them play those games -- but keep a smile on your face as you do so. The agent you're dealing with has probably already faced dozens of pissed-off people before you, and if you are the one who is actually nice, you will probably get somewhere. (I also find that taking to Twitter -- politely! -- in these situations can often yield results.)

Be patient. You're not alone.

Overall, remember that you're not the only one in this situation. (Need proof? Check out FlightAware's handy Misery Map.) Lifelong friendships have been forged in long rebooking lines. Take a deep breath, and keep reminding yourself that in just a few short months, it'll be hotter than hell and you'll be dealing with thunderstorm-related delays instead.

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