Holiday travel: It's time to fly defensively
Flight delays, lost luggage, cancellations. If you're among the 27 million passengers U.S. airlines expect to transport worldwide over...
Seattle Times Travel staff
Help on the way?Commercial airliners will be allowed to use two East Coast air corridors normally restricted to military flights from 4 p.m. EST Wednesday through Sunday, Nov. 25. Other steps announced by President Bush on Thursday to ease congestion:
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is imposing a holiday moratorium on nonessential maintenance projects.
New runway-use patterns have been instituted at New York's Kennedy International that allow four to six more planes to arrive each hour, and Newark, N.J., is about to add new takeoff routes.
An FAA Web site (www.fly.faa.gov) will provide up-to-date information about airport delays.
The Transportation Department proposed doubling the maximum bump fee that airlines must pay to travelers with tickets but no seat to $400 for a delay of less than two hours and to $800 for more than two hours. The maximum fees are now $200 and $400, respectively. It also proposed that airlines devise legally enforceable plans to provide food, water, lavatories and medical care to passengers stranded on taxiways.
Bush also expressed support for charging airlines higher fees to take off and land at peak hours in overcrowded airports.
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Flight delays, lost luggage, cancellations. If you're among the 27 million passengers U.S. airlines expect to transport worldwide over the Thanksgiving holidays, be prepared.
Americans will be traveling in record numbers starting today. With winter weather approaching and flights jammed, "travelers are at risk of weather delays and other unforeseen mishaps," said AAA President Robert Darbeinet.
The airline industry's dismal on-time performance through September — with 73 percent of flights arriving on time — was the worst in 13 years, a record that airlines and the federal government have promised to take steps to improve.
The Bush administration announced Thursday that the U.S. military will make more airspace available for commercial airlines by opening up what spokeswoman Dana Perino called a "Thanksgiving express lane" on the East Coast from Wednesday through Nov. 25. (Congestion and delays at New York airports in particular have affected air travel nationwide in recent months.) The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also is proposing a holiday moratorium on nonessential airline maintenance next week.
The three busiest air-travel days are expected to be next Wednesday, and the Sunday and Monday after Thanksgiving, when the number of daily passengers is expected to exceed 2.5 million, the Washington, D.C.-based Air Transport Association said.
Overall, air travel is expected to be up 4 percent over last year. Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is expecting a 6 percent increase over the holiday period, said spokesman Perry Cooper, with the number of passengers passing through expected to approach the average 100,000 per day that Sea-Tac saw this summer.
Sea-Tac expects 102,000 passengers on Wednesday; 97,000 on the Sunday after Thanksgiving; and 95,000 on the following Monday.
Airlines say they have prepared by adding staff and flights. Nevertheless, the best advice is to fly defensively. Tips on how to cope:
Get a head start
• Check in and print your boarding pass at home from your airline's Web site.
• Use self-service kiosks at Sea-Tac to print boarding passes if you haven't done so from home. Five airlines (Northwest, United, Continental, Alaska and Horizon) share check-in kiosks on the fourth floor of the airport garage by the skybridges.
• Don't forget your driver's license or other government-issued photo ID. If you're flying internationally (including Canada and Mexico), you must have a passport.
• Arrive at the airport two hours before your flight. Allow for traffic delays and time to find parking. Sea-Tac has space for 9,000 cars in its garage ($22 for 24 hours; discounted weekly rate of $109). Reader boards on airport roadways indicate when the garage is full — or check ahead. Get Sea-Tac info, including parking, at www.portseattle.org/seatac or phone 206-433-5388.
Pack with smarts
Complaints about lost, damaged and pilfered luggage are rising. To avoid such problems:
• Travel with carry-on luggage only. If you check a suitcase, be sure to pack medication and valuables (camera, jewelry, laptop, etc.) in your carry-on. Airline compensation for lost, damaged or stolen items is limited.
• Don't overpack. Most airlines allow each passenger to take two checked bags weighing no more than 50 pounds each.
• Remember the 3-1-1 rule. In carry-on luggage, liquids and gels (shampoos, liquid cosmetics, etc.) must be in containers no larger than 3 ounces that fit in a quart-size, resealable plastic bag. One bag is allowed per passenger. You can bring liquid medications, baby formula and food, breast milk, and juice for babies in quantities exceeding 3 ounces. They are not required to be in the resealable bag but must be declared at security.
• You can put medicines and liquids of any amount into checked bags as long as they are not on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) list of banned items. See www.tsa.gov for a list.
• Lock checked luggage, but use a TSA-approved lock (available at luggage and travel stores) that security screeners can open and relock.
Sea-Tac will have all three of its security screening checkpoints open during the holidays. If the line is long at one, try another. Once inside security, you can walk or take the airport minitrain to all gates.
• Prepare to take off your shoes and jacket; to remove cellphones, keys, laptops, etc.; and to show liquid or gel items.
• Ask for help if you need it. "Pathfinders,'' members of Sea-Tac's customer service crew in purple vests, as well as volunteers in blue jackets, are stationed around the airport.
• Before leaving home, check your flight status with your airline or through Sea-Tac's real-time flight information at http://hosting.portseattle.org/fids/. For delays and weather problems, www.flightstats.com is a good online source.
• Know your rights. Airlines aren't required to provide passengers with additional services or compensation when flights are canceled or delayed because of weather or other reasons beyond their control. Compensation is required by U.S. law only when you are "bumped" from a flight that is oversold.
Airlines vary in what they provide if they cancel a flight for mechanical or other reasons. Policies are available on each airline's Web site under headings such as "contract of carriage" or "customer care."
Alaska Airlines, for instance, provides hotel accommodations if your flight is canceled (for nonweather reasons) and the cancellation occurs more than 100 miles from your home. For delays of two hours (not weather-related), it throws in a free long-distance phone call or phone card, a free beverage or a $6 coupon for a snack and 1,000 free miles or a $25 discount on a future flight.
• Airlines often offer to rebook you on the next available flight, but that could be a long wait over the holiday period, when flights are expected to average 90 percent full. Ask to be rebooked on another airline. If counter lines are long, make sure you have the airline's reservation number in your cellphone so you can call to rebook.
• Travel early in the day to avoid problems since delays can spread nationwide through the air-travel system. More than 90 percent of flights leaving Sea-Tac between 6 and 7 a.m. in September departed on time compared to 67 percent of those between 7 and 8 p.m. • Take along something to eat in case your plane ends up stuck on the tarmac.
Airlines frequently oversell flights and some passengers are bumped, especially at busy holiday times. Airlines first ask for volunteers to give up their seats and take another flight in exchange for money or a voucher for future travel or both. If that doesn't work, some people might be bumped involuntarily.
Minimize your chances of getting bumped by checking in for your flight as early as possible. If you are bumped involuntarily and the airline arranges a substitute flight that is scheduled to get you to your final destination within one hour of your original scheduled arrival time, federal law requires no extra compensation.
If the airline arranges substitute transportation that is scheduled to arrive at your destination between one and two hours after your original arrival time (between one and four hours on international flights), it still must pay you an amount equal to your one-way fare to your final destination, with a $200 maximum (expected to be increased by next summer).
If the substitute transportation is scheduled to get you to your destination more than two hours later (four hours internationally), or if the airline does not make substitute travel arrangements, the compensation doubles (200 percent of your fare, $400 maximum).
More details on the federal government's policing the airlines on overbooking: airconsumer.ost.dot.gov.
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