Airline Crisis Survival Guide

Hope your New Year has started off well. After “sleeping in” this morning, I came downstairs and Kathleen had the Rose Parade on. The commentators were discussing some of the “horror stories” the bands had getting to Pasadena because of the blizzard. It wasn’t just the bands.

Here we are, a week later, and significant numbers of people are still stranded.

So, I wish to start the New Year with a little advice about how to avoid getting into these situations and, if you get into one, how to get out.

Photo of travelers attempting to rebook in NYC. Photo by

Before any airline flight, check the weather at your hub and at the destination. 

As usual, the forecasts of the Christmas Blizzard of 2010 were excellent. AccuWeather had it nailed as did the NWS.

I frequently clarify that Meteorological Musings is not a day-to-day weather site like AccuWeather’s, but I covered the forecast Christmas storm because I could forsee the travel disaster that was looming. You can review some of the forecasts here and here -- with the oncoming storm described as a “nightmare.”  The airlines, for once, did the right thing and issued their “waivers” early that would have allowed passengers to change their plans – without restriction or penalty – to avoid the storm.  

So, how – seven days after the storm –  are people still stranded with some not scheduled to fly out until January 4; ten days after the storm? Why did the riot police (literally) have to be called at the Cleveland Airport Wednesday? It is because people flew into a crisis situation. Once at the hub, there was no way to get out. 

As a very frequent flier, one who was on the road on September 11, 2001 (and scheduled to fly back the next day), and a person who has worked extensively with airlines as client, I believe I have some insights that might be useful if you – our valued blog reader – ever find yourself faced with this type of situation. 


The number one rule must be to stay out of this type of situation if at all possible.

Keep in mind that most airlines use the “hub” system. You fly to a “hub,” change planes, and fly out.  Most airlines also have multiple hubs.  Take Delta, one of the airlines with hubs hardest hit (Atlanta and New York) by the Christmas storm.  Assume for a moment that you had wanted to get from Madison, WI to Mobile, AL for some warm weather and that you were scheduled to change planes in Atlanta on Christmas Eve when Atlanta reported heavy snows and major delays.

The goal, in this case, would be to avoid the potential weather problem: Solution, go to the airport the day before and see if they will reroute you through their hub in Memphis or in Cincinnati where the weather was fine. Generally, in these situations, they are happy to do so (note: they do not want to put you on another airline except as a last resort).  Avoid the problem!

Why did I say, “go to the airport"? It is my experience that, until waivers are issued, the airport people have more flexibility than reservations people or internet (and, until waivers are issued, there is zero flexibility on the internet).  The day before the storm, things are relatively quiet and if you go in between check-in periods, they will accommodate you.  How do you find out if there is a potential problem?  Use the AccuWeather “winter and severe” feature. 

If you cannot avoid the problem by switching hubs and waivers are issued (you can check this at your airline’s web site), then change your trip. Best move: Go early and beat the storm.

The Smith Family did this in 2000.  We had tickets to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas (we were driving in this case). A massive ice storm was predicted across Oklahoma the day before the game. So, I said, “get packed, we’re leaving in three hours!” I called the hotel, got our two rooms one night early, and we left without difficulty and made the drive in the usual five hours.

Gameday, we heard numerous horror stories about white knuckle twelve hour drives. As we drove back north we saw dozens of cars still in ditches on either side of I-35 and at least three of the giant interstate highway signs collapsed when cars slid into one of their legs.  

The reason I favor leaving early over delaying a day or two is that the effects of a major storm may still be lingering after the storm as is the case with the Christmas 2010 blizzard. 

Photo taken Wednesday from

Don’t Believe What Airlines Tell You

What if, for example, you are flying back from a foreign country and don’t know of the hazard and find yourself stuck at an airport? The problem is that the airport is a horrible place to try to sort this out once the crisis has begun:

1.     Security. I love it (sarcasm) when I am at the gate (this just happened last month), the flight is cancelled due to a mechanical problem, and they want you to go to the counter to get things rebooked. My answer: No. In these days of grope searches and nude machines, I have no desire to go through security any more than once. I (politely) requested they fix the problem at the gate and they did. However, this would not have been practical if thousands were affected. Security makes it more difficult to fix problems at the airport.

2.     The airlines’ airport employees are exhausted, exasperated, and short-handed. Because of the storm, some employees will be late or not able to get to the airport at all.

3.     Airport vendors’ deliveries will not get through and they will run short of food/supplies and their employees will have problems getting to work.

All this makes the airport a terrible place to fix the problem while it is in progress.

Finally, I can’t emphasize this enough: You usually cannot believe what the airline employees tell you in these situations  Sometimes airline employees are poorly informed and sometimes they just plain lie. Regardless, you cannot trust your time and trip to them.

Keep in mind that the decisions to cancel or reschedule a flight are not made at the airport! They are made in airline dispatch and maintenance centers sometimes continents away. For example, American’s are made in Ft. Worth, Delta’s in Atlanta, AirTran’s in Orlando, etc. The frustrated airline employees are relying on people who may or may not fully understand the level of frustration at the airport.  If you would like to understand more about this, the Wall Street Journal recently had a story (click here, subscription may be required) on this very topic. It is a story of nearly 500 people stranded in Europe when American Airlines reacted poorly after an engine failed on a single aircraft.

In a catastrophic situation (September 11 or the Christmas Blizzard in NYC), don’t even go to the airport or, if you are there, get out!  According to a news story as I am writing this Continental Airlines had still cancelled 170 flights to Newark, five days after the blizzard!  If you were camping in the Newark Airport, you (and the airline employees) had no way to know on, say, Sunday, the flight they rebooked you on Wednesday would be cancelled four days later!  In these catastrophic situations take a cab, a rental car, a hotel shuttle bus or whatever it takes.  Get out!

Once you are out, what next?

In a catastrophic situation, forget the airlines. Find another way. Amtrak, Greyhound, rent a car – but do it quickly. I’d rather have my blog readers safe and sane! Wouldn’t you rather take a leisurely 2.5 days to get from (say) Chicago to L.A. on Amtrak rested and refreshed than risk seven frantic days trying to fly?

Kathleen and I were in Palm Springs on Sept. 11th. We were told the planes would start flying the next day – the day we were already scheduled to come home. I told Kathleen, “No way. Start packing, I'll take the rental car fill it with gas, buy a road atlas, and tell Hertz we’re taking the car to Wichita.” We got home two days later. I went to the Wichita airport and got a refund on the return leg of our trip. 

Family members of mine were in NYC changing planes when Sept. 11th occurred. Flight cancelled. The airline kept telling them they would get out the next day, but they never did. Finally, on Saturday (5 days later, after rental cars were gone and Amtrak overbooked),  they ended up buying a car and driving it back to KC. They sold the car when they got home. The situation became that desperate.

If you are going to another continent or it is completely impractical to drive or take the train, find a hotel. Hotels have internet which is a better way to rebook (given waivers) than via telephone.  Some hotel rooms have speakerphones which are far superior, if you have to speak to airline reservations, than keeping a cell phone or pay phone pressed to your ear for hours or tens of minutes. Take a cab, limo, shuttle bus, walk (I did that once in Pittsburgh pulling my wheeled suitcase behind me), whatever it takes!

Unfortunately, none of this is foolproof. But, in general, once the airline dominoes start falling, the delays are worse than originally predicted. So, I would rather not undergo the stress (life is too short!) of camping in an airport for days.  Be proactive and you will probably have a much better time than being at the mercy of the airlines.

Note:  Kathleen said, after proofing for me, "will people remember all this when a crisis occurs?" I suggest printing it out and putting it with your travel kit for future reference. 

Hope your travels are smooth and pleasurable in 2011!

UPDATE 10pm Saturday: I've heard from a number of people about this posting, including one that got stuck in the Christmas Blizzard.  Here are some additional suggestions:
  • Pack a laptop, even if you don't plan to work on your trip, if someone in your travelling party has work that must be done immediately on his/her return from the trip (or can't afford to spend extra vacation days due to a delay). This is what we failed to do this year. I knew that I could go into my company's branch office in Toronto, but my husband needed to get back to work. We didn't have a laptop and he didn't have access to the files he needed to conduct a productive day's work. So instead of spending two enjoyable and productive days in Toronto, working and visiting friends, before flying home late on the 29th, we scrambled to get a flight in the morning of the 28th - and ended up spending all day and early evening trying to get home - with lots of delays, cancelled flights, and multiple trips through US Immigration and security. On my next trip (mid-January), I'm planning to email myself some files so I know that there's some work I can do for a day or two if I get stuck somewhere.

  • If you need to rebook by phone, try a) calling an overseas call centre if possible; and/or b) try choosing the second language option if one is offered when you dial. When our flights through Heathrow were cancelled in 2006 at Christmas and the lines were jammed, I called the North American call centre for BA using Skype. I read on FT recently about someone who was able to get through on Continental after 5 minutes by choosing "Habla espanol" at the start of the call. (He was able to conduct the conversation in English with the operator.)
  • The above is also true with lost baggage. I've used it successfully on one occasion.  
And, now, from an airline agent:

Thank you, good suggestions, especially that people should NOT stay at the airport. I've seen this happen in weather situations and although we feel for people and their dilema, it becomes totally wearisome for ticket counter agents when the same passengers just keep coming back to the counter over and over, asking the same questions - "do you think planes will start flying by such-and-such time", "will more flights be cancelled", "I have no place to go", "I don't live in this city", a lot of hypothetical questions and situations that we do not have the answer(s) to. Some people expect us to be social workers. 

We understand their desperation but at the same time you would be surprised how many people have no plan, no money, no credit card, no ability to get to another airport by rental car, bus, train, etc. I wouldn't dream of taking a trip if I didn't have any money or a credit card and I certainly wouldn't spend my last dollar while on vacation in the event of unexpected problems. Also a good idea is to have a small bag with essentials - phone charger, sweater or jacket, underwear, towel, toiletries, creature comforts that can make a big difference if stuck at a connection point or anywhere else. I've seen people in flip-flops and shorts not suited for the bad weather or cold temperatures.

Finally, I am writing this while watching the Fiesta Bowl and one of the announcers just commented that the family of one of the players could not get out of Boston because of the blizzard. So, they traveled south to Baltimore and flew out of there. On Tuesday, just before noon, I wrote:

If you are stuck at one of the NYC airports, my suggestion: Take Amtrak home or go south on Amtrak or bus to Baltimore or D.C. where the snow is cleared and flights are operating more or less normally if the airline can give you a confirmed (in writing!) reservation and allows you plenty of time to get south. 

If they were reading the blog, happy to be of help!!


  1. It seems your blog has attracted the attention of the radio weather man who likes to call himself a meteorologist.

  2. Just noticed this excellent post after reading your comment on an NYT article. One thing I'd add to this, when it comes to rebooking: if you're asking an airline to accommodate you on another flight, know *exactly* what you want and check if it's available.

    Even if you can't change your booking online, look at the airline's website and sites like ITA Software and figure out what flights that go to your destination still have seats available on them. Write down the flight numbers and departure times for each individual segment.

    When you call the airline or speak with the agent at the airport, tell them where you need to go and then say "It looks like flight XXX, connecting to flight YYY, has seats tomorrow. Can you book me on that?" When the call centers are swamped, this will let them deal with your issue quickly -- and so they may well be more lenient about using other airlines or creative routings since you're doing them a favor by saving them time.

  3. Great advice. I was supposed to spend this past weekend in Boston. My flights had been previously upgraded, somewhat complicating the rebooking. As I saw the storm news, I knew that Boston was a terrible idea. As soon as I saw travel waivers appear, we called from home and rebooked to Miami. Had to pay a bit to change the destination, but found a hotel that was cheaper. Using Expert Flyer, I found flights that could be upgraded immediately.

    I also got caught in Paris when the Eurostar was stalling due to snow and ice in the Chunnel. My flight to the US was leaving from Heathrow. As soon as I heard that British Airways was adding service betweeen LHR and CDG, I booked a ticket to ensure that I would make my flight home. I ended up in the upper deck of a 747 for the short hop to London. Kind of fun, actually. I admire people who can quickly come up with alternates in tough situation.

    Finally, even though I hate hauling it around, I almost always take my work laptop when going away for a few days. Saves me having to burn more vacation time if a problem occurs.

  4. Thanks for the comments, great ideas both!

  5. If I have issues at the airport, I never deal with the gate agent. Instead, I call Delta direct.

    Furthermore, when I travel in Europe, I never deal with the locals (e.g., car rental agencies). Instead, I call the US.

    Basically, I call where I know I'll get good customer service. This basically means (a) calling the US, and (b) calling way up the chain of command.


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