When delays occur, flying equals frustration


WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- There's a lot of frustration with air travel these days, from the confusing fares to the fees. Just figuring out what each airline charges for baggage can tricky. Booking the most affordable flight can be mind-bending.

The five cardinal rules experienced travelers go by are:

* Book only a non-stop flight.

* Never schedule a business meeting or other appointment the same day that you are traveling, because you might not make it in time.

* Take the earliest crack-of-dawn flight you can possibly tolerate.

* Travel mid-week if possible.

* Don't check your bag because if you have to get off the flight, you will have to wait to get it back. Or, it could get lost on the way there.

It's also a good idea to download the airline's app to your smartphone, and add its customer service number to your contacts list.

You can find a list of chronically delayed flights at flightstats.com.

Go to www.dot.gov/aviation to read about delays, lost baggage, consumer complaints and more.

What's your favorite airline, if any? Consumer Reports says in its July issue that Virgin America, a newcomer to its ratings, received the highest scores.

The survey, based on 16,663 readers' input, also gave Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways very high ratings.

Next in order from best to worst were Hawaiian Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Frontier Airlines, Delta Air Lines, US Airways, American Airlines and United Airlines. Spirit Airlines, known for charging $100 to check a bag at the gate, ranked last.

But the best-laid plans can't prevent what happened to a recent Delta flight to Atlanta out of Palm Beach International Airport. Sometimes things just go wrong.

Flight 1184 was scheduled to leave at 8:15 a.m. on a Wednesday. Instead, a few minutes after the scheduled departure, a flight attendant announced that a nick had been found on the Boeing 757's "blade," and a mechanic would be coming from "another city" to buff it out.

A nick? From my cramped seat, I envisioned either a crack or that a 6-inch chunk was missing, because I know the severity of problems is usually downplayed. That's what Reader's Digest found in "50 Secrets Pilots Won't Tell You."

Whatever the case, passengers began asking flight attendants what their alternatives were. One attendant told a passenger that the Fort Lauderdale airport was "just 30 minutes away." Of course, it's 50 miles away and close to an hour's drive.

A photograph of the questionable blade was sent to Delta headquarters, and the verdict was that the nick could not be buffed out. Around 9:45 a.m. passengers were told to get off the plane, and the scramble to find other flights began.

Of course, no one wanted to fly on a damaged plane. Flight attendants said Delta mechanics bearing a new blade would be driving up from Miami. It turned out to be a long day for them, as the flight finally left PBIA at 5:30 p.m.

For the passengers trying to fly that morning, the problem was that the few other flights headed for Atlanta were all filled. Some local residents returned home with plans to take another flight the next day. For those with connecting flights, taking a later flight, if they could find one, would cause them to miss their connection.

Booking a flight out of Miami or Fort Lauderdale was another choice, but it didn't seem to work for many of them.

It's not like airlines have backup planes sitting around, and Delta employees said no replacement aircraft was available. So, at a medium-sized airport like PBIA, there are not a lot of choices. Nor do the airlines have enough staff on site ready to handle the re-booking of 200 or more passengers.

Passengers were asked to call Delta or to contact the airline at a self-help kiosk. In the case of a re-booking, a new boarding pass can be printed at the kiosk.

But those who needed to switch to another airline were told they had to see wait to see an agent. Those who had checked bags had to wait in line for as long as two hours to get paperwork that would enable them to get their luggage back.

Several passengers asked if they could receive compensation for their plans being ruined. The answer was no. But they were given a $25 voucher for airport purchases.

For those who had wasted half a day waiting for nothing, it wasn't the end of the world. But if they had begun driving to Atlanta at the time they had left their homes that morning, many would have been halfway there.


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