4 Ways To Cope With Frustrating Airline Cutbacks

What should you do when your airline calls to let you know that they’ve decided to randomly cancel your flight? Travel guru Christopher Elliott gives us the following nightmare scenario:

“The only option that they’ve offered is a refund, which is useless at this point, since the tickets are twice as expensive as they were when I purchased them,” he says. “Delta is claiming their codeshare partner changed the schedule and that they’re under no obligation to offer us new travel dates, unless the partner airline has tickets with the exact same fare code.”

In other words, Peterman didn’t pay enough for his ticket.

This scenario is likely to repeat itself more in the coming months. Airlines have canceled twice as many flights in the first half of 2008 as they did last year — about 65,000 — and they have no intention of tapping the brakes. In fact, domestic airlines are expected to cut the number of flights by up to 15 percent during the next year, which is the biggest reduction in service since 9/11, and maybe ever.

But these cancellations don’t have to ruin your trip. I contacted Travelocity to find out why Peterman had been left high and dry by Delta. A Travelocity spokesman promised to find out what had happened to his flight. “Regardless of the outcome, our agents shouldn’t be telling a customer to call the carrier,” he added. They might take a moment to read their customers’ e-mail signatures, too. Peterman is a lawyer.

Elliott says that airline, with Travelocity’s help, should have rebooked Peterman’s ticket… but they didn’t. Shocking, we know.

Here are quick summaries of 4 helpful strategies for dealing with the inevitable airline cutbacks:

  1. Call your airline to confirm your flight at least two weeks in advance.
    Calling to confirm your tickets earlier will help you rebook at a cheaper price in the event that your flight has disappeared into the ether thanks to someone’s quarterly-profit-blah-blah-cutback report.

  2. Know your airline’s contract of carriage.
    Being familiar with your airlines legal nonsense will make it easier to negotiate.

  3. Work with a good travel agent.
    They cost more, but they’re you’re best defense against an increasingly hostile world– er, a hostile airline anyway. For crazy important life-changing trips consider using a good travel agent.

  4. Avoid often canceled flights.
    Look up data about flight cancellations here.

For the full explanation behind these tips click here.

4 secrets for coping with airline cutbacks [CNN]
(Photo: meghannmarco )


Edit Your Comment

  1. lingum says:

    Whew, it wasn’t THAT Christopher Elliott. Was looking forward to Fancy Lad and Filthy Whore jokes.

  2. rpm773 says:

    About point #3: Just when we thought the travel agent industry was obsolete due to internet booking, it gets bailed out by the incompetent airlines. Funny how that works out.

  3. Geekybiker says:

    Say what? Airlines are fond of saying that your ticket isn’t for a specific route, or time, but rather travel between two points. That street works two ways folks. Just because that specific flight is canceled shouldn’t invalidate the ticket.

  4. QrazyQat says:

    “good travel agent”

    Good one. LMAO.

  5. courtarro says:

    #4: I see lots of statistics about successful flights, but where are the canceled ones?

  6. Byzantine says:

    Don’t believe anything Travelocity tells you. I had a really bad experience with them. Way too long to post here though.

  7. randomangela47 says:

    I actually had a good flying experience this summer thanks to a wonderful travel agent. Of course, part of that may be the fact that he booked me on Singapore Airlines, with a codeshare on American Airlines between St. Louis & the west coast.

    1. The travel agent’s price was significantly less expensive than anything I found online to my destination.

    2. When I had to come home early, thus changing my flights, Singapore Airlines doesn’t charge any fees for changing dates. American Airlines was not so friendly, so I contacted my travel agent, and he took care of it all. Best of all, since I booked through Singapore Airlines, I had no extra fees from American Airlines and was not even charged for my checked luggage (despite the sign announcing the fee for everyone else)!

    I avoid flying if at all possible, but I will never again book a flight on a US carrier if a foreign carrier is available, and I will definitely at least comparison shop between travel agents and online booking sites.

  8. krispykrink says:

    Step #1 Don’t fly! Skip steps 2-4. If you still fly, you bought your ticket, you knew what you were getting into…

  9. Fly Girl says:

    I wholeheartedly support item number three, and not just because I’m a travel agent. Today, for instance, I got a call from a major international airline telling me that they were ceasing Thursday operations. That meant that one of my clients, who leaves on a pretty major trip next week, was going to have to rebook her return flight.

    Her options were to A.) return home a day early or B.) return home three days late. Cutting her trip short wasn’t really an option, since she was on an organized trip, and staying longer was going to cost money…

    In addition, any date changes would necessitate a modification to her travel insurance policy. Instead of my client receiving this call and having to deal with all of this a week before she left, I handled all of it for her. It took me the better part of the day on the phone, but that’s my job.

    By using a (good) travel agent, you are also buying peace of mind. It’s my job to know all of the contracts of carriage. It’s my job to know all of the fare rules. It’s my job to know what my client is entitled to and to advocate for my client.

    The airline tried to tell me that they were going to “allow a free schedule change and honor the original fare.” Uh, damn straight you are– you don’t cancel a flight and then charge me more to rebook it!

    After all was said and done, I had my client rebooked on a nicer itinerary, her insurance modified, and a few extra days of vacation– with the hotels paid for by the airline. It didn’t cost my client a penny and she didn’t have to spend a single moment of her own time. Plus, I got her a sweet ass deal on her tickets in the first place– far cheaper than anything she was seeing online, things to contracts that my agency has negotiated directly with the airlines. Nice!

  10. Boulderite says:

    @Fly Girl:

    Good Job!

    I’ve never used a travel agent before, but now I am considering it. Have a great night!

  11. newspix100 says:

    @Fly Girl:

    What is your agency, where are you located and how do I book with you!!!!!!!!

  12. Fly Girl says:

    @Boulderite and newspix100:

    Well… I don’t really want to disclose where I work, since I enjoy a certain level of internet anonymity, but I can give you a few tips for finding a good travel agent…

    Experience, experience, experience. I can’t emphasize it enough. Finding the best deal comes down to knowing where to look, and that’s something that only comes with years and years of experience. Putting together an itinerary can be a complex puzzle and, to do it correctly, takes skill. It’s skill that develops over time and can’t really be taught. Breaking itineraries, splitting routing, combining fares… That’s all stuff that only an experienced agent will know how to do. Find someone with seniority. (But not so much seniority that they’re stuck in a rut– I’ve met some agents that are afraid of the internet, hate email, and don’t understand e-tickets. Ugh. No thank you!)

    Bigger can be a lot better. I know, that’s counter-intuitive for a lot of Consumerists, and the key is finding that balance between big but not TOO big. Once an agency gets TOO big, they lose sight of what matters (the clients!) and quality control (over agents) can slip. But, the bigger the agency the better the contracts with the airlines. The more buying power an agency has, the better deal that the airlines (and hotels, and tour operators, and rental car companies) are going to cut with the agency. The reason that I can beat the internet’s prices 99.9% of the time is because I have access to contracts that allow me to sell, for instance, United’s tickets for even cheaper than United sells them on their own website. If you use a small, local travel agency or (*gasp*) a home based agent(NEVER!), you’re not going to get access to the best deals. They’re probably calling a bigger agency, like mine, to get the deals and then marking them up to sell them to you.

    Shop around. Find a good travel agent, and use them, but don’t be afraid to shop around. Always use a fare searching engine, like Kayak, before you call your travel agent. Be aware of what prices are like. Don’t go with the first quote you get. An educated client is a good client– and an educated consumer is a good consumer!

    Shop around but BE LOYAL. A travel agent is far more likely to bust their ass for a client that they know isn’t going to waste their time. If I have a good client, a repeat client, a client that I know is going to ultimately buy the ticket when I’m done working on it, I’m going to do my best to get them a really killer deal. But I’ve also got those clients that are chronic window shoppers– calling me every couple of months for a quote, never actually buying anything. I don’t work very hard on those bookings because they’re time wasters. Don’t be a time waster.

    Find an agent that doesn’t depend on commission. I’m salaried, as is everyone else in my office. We have an office budget that we need to make each month, but because I get paid either way, I have no incentive to force things on you, to sell you things you don’t need, or to mark up your fares unnecessarily. I get paid no matter what, so I don’t have any vested interest in closing the deal. (Other than your happiness, of course!) You’re looking for a travel agent, not a used car salesman. Don’t end up with the latter.

    Go to the RIGHT agent– don’t call an agency that specializes in cruises to book your international adventure travel. Don’t call an agency that specializes in international adventure travel to book a Disneyland package. Agencies specialize in certain areas for a reason, and going to the right agency is going to ensure that you get the best deal. If you had a cavity, you wouldn’t call your OBGYN. Don’t call a corporate travel agent to book an all-inclusive Spring Break.

    Find an agent that loves their job. I do my job because I love travel. I’ve traveled all over the world. I spend all of my extra money on travel. I sell the kind of travel that I love. I talk about travel, I think about travel, I dream about travel. The only thing I like better than planning your next trip is planning MY next trip. I’m excited about what I do, and it comes through in my work. Just like in any other field, the best people at their job are going to be the people who truly LOVE their job. I love my job. Find a travel agent that loves their job.

    Ask about fees right up front. Most people are under the mistaken impression that it’s EXPENSIVE to use an agent. It’s not. In fact, I usually save people money. Add in the time saved by not shopping around, not having to deal with the airlines, and knowing that if and when shit hits the fan, someone else is on the hook for it, the service that a travel agent provides is a BARGAIN. Getting a quote is free– always. It doesn’t cost you a single penny to call and get a quote. And you’re not on the hook to buy anything ever. And when I quote, it is inclusive of ALL taxes, fees, surcharges, EVERYTHING. No surprises. If I tell you the ticket is $1,250 then the ticket is $1,250. Period. No fees at the end, no extra charges at the end. Can you say the same of Expedia or Travelocity?

    Find an agent with a little fire in ’em. There’s nothing that gets me more riled up than an injustice. Tour providers trying to tack on a fuel surcharge after the fact? Airlines canceling flights and trying to get out of paying for the hotels? HELLS NO! Not on my watch. I go to bat for my clients, each and every one of them, both because I care about my clients and because I’m a true Consumerist. I don’t sell a ticket and consider my job done– my job isn’t done until your back home from your trip. Until that point, I’m ready to handle any challenge that comes your way.

    And… I’m sure there’s more, but that’s good for now! :)

  13. Alexander says:

    @Fly Girl: Yes, seriously, where are you located? I want to surprise my wife with a Christmas trip to Paris but I haven’t the slightest idea of where to start. I have visited countless travel sites and I’m just overwhelmed by the choices…

  14. Alexander says:

    @Fly Girl: Wow, thanks for the insights. Is there any travel agency you can recommend in the Los Angeles/Pasadena area? You description of what a travel agent is supposed to do sounds much better than getting something from travelocity and sites like that…

  15. I definitely agree with point #3. I have learned enough buying ticket from new travel agent which offered me low price. Unfortunatelly my flight was delayed. Considering that I had to attend an important meeting, I contacted the agent for some help. They refused to help. By that time, I promise myself always to use good travel agent service. A bit more expensive is nothing when you are in troubles.

  16. Kajj says:

    @alexander: Personally I prefer to use travel agents whose response to “Help, my airline stranded me in a foreign country without a hotel room” isn’t “serves you right!:

  17. Kajj says:

    ^Bad link: [consumerist.com]

  18. shufflemoomin says:

    @Fly Girl: Not really on topic, but I’ve booked flights online for the past few years since overpaying with a travel agent a while back. How can some travel agents beat the online deals and the direct price offered by the airline? I’m curious how it’s done and what kind of savings travel agents can offer. It might just get me back in a travel agency…

  19. t-bar says:

    I had a similar problem with a November honeymoon trip to Bangkok on Delta. I booked the trip in January, before the fuel prices skyrocketed. Even though I booked through Delta, not one of my flights was a mainline Delta flight. It was all regional carriers domestically (to LAX), and Korean Air for the overseas legs to Bangkok.

    The problems started when Korean Air changed their schedule. I periodically checked my itinerary on Delta.com, and noticed these changes. No big deal, but we were leaving a few hours earlier and arriving later. I thought the connection in LAX was getting a bit tight at 2 hours. Then the first flight of the trip, a regional jet flight to LAX, was cancelled.

    Delta didn’t have any earlier flights, and so their system decided to have us connect in their Salt Lake City hub and arrive in LAX an hour _after_ the Korean Air flight left. I received no e-mail notification on any of these changes, the only thing that saved me was checking the itinerary.

    With this impossible schedule, I finally called Delta.

    Agent: “Oh, yes…an hour is not enough time for an international connection in LAX”
    Me: “I agree. What about a negative hour?”
    Agent: “Ummmmmmm…wow…yeah…can you hold?”

    I knew from their schedule that they did not have an earlier flight to LAX, connecting or otherwise. The agent wanted to re-route us through another city, and possibly change the travel days. This was when I played the “Honeymoon” card, even though a day or two wouldn’t have really mattered. After about an hour on the phone they put us on a USAirways flight to LAX with a reasonable connection time.

    So if you book directly with the airline, keep checking your itinerary and don’t assume they’ll call you.

    The day after the agent fixed the itinerary manually, our final flight of the trip was moved back by 15 minutes. So the changes keep happening. And I keep checking….

  20. sleze69 says:

    My old fashioned father has used a Travel agent in Tulsa for the past 18 years (when he lived there). He has never purchased a ticket online. How silly. Of course, when I have trouble booking a trip online, somehow she always comes through with exactly what I need.

    Perhaps this whole online travel industry just “culled the herd” of the dime-a-dozen travel agents and only the competant ones survived?

  21. sassbrown74 says:

    I am always a bit surprised by the “horror” travel stories because I never have them. Perhaps I have different expectations. The suggestions on using a travel agent I wholeheartedly agree with for complicated trips — like my upcoming mullet trip to Asia (business on the front end, party on the back).

    For domestic flights, I know using a travel agent works well for some busy folks. I kind of like to have the control of making my own arrangements. I have some tips of my own:

    1) Set your expectations low — There are always going to be problems. Expect to have plans disrupted because of them on occasion. You can also expect, however, the air carrier to do something to get you where you need to go.

    2) Have a good attitude — It is amazing how differently even the nasty CSRs treat somebody who is pleasant. The entire experience is different when you have a positive attitude. As a bit of an a-hole by nature, I discovered this one quite accidentally, I assure you.

    3) Always leave plenty of time — I have never been denied boarding because of overbooking. Not sure if it is related to the fact that I always check-in way too early. In any case the entire travel experience is much more pleasant when you are not rushed for time.

    4) If you can, get lounge access membership. Not only is the lounge a nicer place to hang out, but the airline staff in them are used to dealing with a different level of traveler. I find you get an accordingly improved level of service. If you travel fairly often, it can be worth the investment.

  22. Evil_Otto would rather pay taxes than make someone else rich says:

    I recently had JetBlue cancel a flight on me that I’d scheduled back in June; I’m sure fuel costs have made the fare higher for new bookings by now. They’d sent me an email (which appeared to have ended up as an appetizer for Gmail’s spam filtering) telling me of the change, but I handn’t gotten back to them about it as the email requested. JetBlue called me, on a weekend, to ask if I’d received the email and would I like to re-book while I had them on the phone. The CSR couldn’t have been nicer, and despite having to rebook on the redeye (cross-country, ugh) I have to say I’m pleased with the process and follow-up. I even had to speak with two different reps (as I had to look some things up before I could commit to the new flight) and the transition was seamless.

    JetBlue is going to be my airline of choice from now on. The new planes and the satellite TV are icing on the cake.

  23. sjg1402 says:

    A good travel agent is so worth the money. We were to fly to the UK on Sept 12, 2001. Within minutes of hearing about the planes hitting the towers, I was on the phone with our travel agent. Within hours, everything was taken care of including a full refund on our tickets. Without her, I wouldn’t even have known where to start.
    We’ve used her for international flights, domestic flights and now am working on a small boat cruise in Alaska.
    For those of you who aren’t control freaks, a good travel agent is worth their weight in gold.
    With flights being delayed or cancelled at a moments notice, having a good travel agent is well worth the money. And they money’s not much compared to your time and peace of mind.

  24. Fly Girl says:

    @alexander: Give the Adventure Travel Company a try. They’re in San Diego or San Francisco, so not right in LA, but close enough… And you don’t need to go into the office– everything can be done over the phone or by email. (Generally.) [www.theadventuretravelcompany.com]

    Christmas in Paris is simply WONDERFUL!!! The 13th of December through the 7th of January can be really hard to find space on flights, so be flexible with your dates if you want to score a deal… And book soon. I’d expect to pay about $1,000-$1,300 per person for the flights, depending on availability and your dates.

  25. Fly Girl says:

    @Kajj: I still stand by my assertion. I had clients, a couple on their honeymoon, in Punta Cana during the hurricane. (Traveling on US Airways, in fact.) Before they left, I made sure they understood the hurricane risk. I made sure they had travel insurance. I made sure they had cash available to them and a plan in case shit hit the fan. And guess what? They were FINE. I’m a full service travel agent, but I also believe in personal accountability. I fight to ensure that every single one of my clients gets what they’re entitled to, but having an airline pay for a hotel during a hurricane? That’s ridiculous.

  26. Alexander says:

    @Fly Girl: Thank you very much for the advice. I will give the Adventure Travel Company a try. The price you indicate is pretty much the range I’m getting. AAA has a package of flight/hotel for $1,500 a person, sounds about right. Thanks! Now if France would just cooperate, my wife is a US citizen but I’m a legal resident (green card) and to get a visa for France is a ridiculous amount of paper work they want…

  27. Fly Girl says:

    @shufflemoomin: There are several types of fares. There are published fares. Those are fares that are the standard fares set up by the airline. Those are the fares that you see online, and those are the same fares that I see if I do a general fare display in my GDS (which is the system that travel agents use to book travel). There are also consolodator and wholesale fares. Those are fares that large outlets negotiate directly with the airline. Those fares are usually (far) cheaper than the cheapest published fares. For instance, if the cheapest published fare on Northwest from Detroit to Amsterdam is $399, a consolodator might have a negotiated contract that allows them to sell that same ticket at $199. Agencies can use those contracts by booking through the consolodator. The consolodator usually charges the travel agent $15.00 or $25.00 to issue the ticket– that’s how they make their money– and then the travel agent will mark up the fare to just-below-published. That way, they’re saving the client money AND they’re making money. And then some agencies, like the one I work for, have contracts negotiated directly with the airlines, cutting out the need for a third party wholesaler. Those contracts usually include more flexible rules (like free date changes, refundable tickets, etc…) and lower fares. Sometimes there will be other deals, like a percentage off of the lowest fare. For instance, a pretty conmmon deal is that an airline will allow an agent to sell the ticket for 10% off of the lowest price available. So, if you go to the airline’s website, they might have the ticket available for $300. I can sell that same ticket for 10% less. In addition, I always go online to see what my clients are seeing when they shop around and then I try to beat the prices. And if I can’t, I tell the client. Generally, you’re going to have the best luck getting deals on international travel if you book through an agent. Most airlines quit incentifying agent use for domestic travel a few years ago.

  28. newspix100 says:

    Consumerist, Newsweek, NBC, etc. Pay Attention!! One of you needs to hire Fly Girl as a consumer travel reporter. This lady is on the ball, has the right pro-consumer attitude, and isn’t afraid to tell the world how she makes a buck. She is a win, win in my book!

  29. JerseyJarhead says:

    The so-called “Ways to Cope” could involved hundereds of hours of research. Just to find out “ways” to make sure you get what you were promised, and in most cases already paid for.

    Thanks for nothing.

    Consumerist shouldn’t post this UNhelpful crap.

    An updated list of airline execs email and phone numbers would actually be helpful, along with FAA/DOT complaint information.