By Quentin Fottrell and Catey Hill
More than 3 million people are flying for the Thanksgiving holidays this year, according to AAA -- and given the weather forecast, many of them will soon be suffering through airport delays, flight cancellations and other travel hiccups.
A storm, which began pelting California on Thursday, has already dumped snow on Colorado and Utah and taken the lives of roughly a dozen people. It is now heading east, and experts predict that it will hit the east coast from Georgia up through New England. The worst of it is likely to affect the area on Tuesday and Wednesday, when many are trying to fly out for the holidays.
In most instances, passengers are given little notice of delays. But since those who act quickest in response to a delay tend to get the most satisfaction from the airlines, "the most powerful tool you have for a delayed flight is information," says David Lytle, editorial director at Frommers.com. Download apps like FlightStats and GateGuru before you head to the airport, as they often deliver updates faster than the airlines, giving you a head start on other passengers.
Once you know about the delay or cancellation, Rick Seaney, the CEO of FareCompare.com, says that passengers should try to get in touch with the airline right away in order to beat other passengers onto another flight. To do this, get in line to talk to the gate agent while also calling the airline or tweeting the issue to them (many airlines monitor Twitter frequently, so sometimes this is the fastest way to get in touch with the airline).
It may also pay to have your frequent-flier number handy, says Gregg Mauss, who runs Expeditions-Redefined, a New York-based luxury-travel firm. "It's the best way of ensuring you're at least higher up in the pecking order," he says. "Airlines use very complex computer systems that attach a status to everyone flying." The more information they have about your track record as a loyal customer, he says, the better.
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It's also important to know the rules. If the delay is caused by an issue within the airlines' control -- like mechanical issues, insufficient crew availability or lack of aircraft -- "the airline must provide a hotel for stranded passengers, food and taxi vouchers and a seat on the next available flight," says Kate Hanni, co-founder of the nonprofit organization FlyersRights.org. However, if the delay is caused by "an act of God" -- like bad weather -- the airline is not required to compensate passengers.
Onboard delays are the worst, experts say. The Department of Transportation's rules to protect airline passengers -- updated in recent years -- set a four-hour limit on tarmac delays for international flights of U.S. and foreign airlines, and a three-hour maximum for domestic U.S. flights. Most consumer advocates say that is still too long for passengers -- especially seniors and those with young children. Carriers must ensure that passengers stuck on the tarmac are given adequate food and water after two hours, working lavatories and medical treatment.
Airlines are still allowed to overbook flights. However, passengers who aren't rebooked on a flight within two hours for domestic flights and four hours for international trips, are entitled to monetary compensation of four times the ticket price (up to $1,300). The compensation cap was set at $800 before the government updated its rules last year. Of course, this won't cover those passengers who miss their $5,000 cruise, says Todd Curtis, analyst and founder of AirSafe.com.
While it's impossible to completely avoid delays, passengers can put the odds in their favor. One strategy is to book early nonstop flights and/or "originator flights," which begin their journey from your airport, experts say. Saturdays have the least delays, Mauss says, while Sundays, Thursdays and Monday mornings are the worst. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics site, FlightStats.com, also has statistics on airline and airport delays. "The very best way to avoid delays is to use smaller airports in congested regions," Mauss says. And if the inevitable delay does happen, Seaney says you may want to purchase a day-pass to the airline's members-only lounge.
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-Quentin Fottrell; 415-439-6400; AskNewswires@dowjones.com
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11-25-13 1336ETCopyright (c) 2013 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.