Delayed flights, packed planes can test holiday cheer
By Nancy Trejos
If you plan on flying this week, prepare yourself. Volatile weather and packed planes make the Christmas and New Year's season one of the trickiest times of the year for air travel.
Airlines for America, the U.S. airline industry's trade organization, is predicting just over 43 million air travelers in the 21-day period surrounding Christmas and New Year's, a slight drop from last year because of energy prices and reduced household wealth. That averages to about 2 million air travelers a day. The organization will release its full forecast Tuesday.
Odds are high they could face delays because of bad weather. Nearly one in three domestic flights for the major carriers reporting since 1987 were late, canceled or diverted over the holidays the last six years, according to the Transportation Department's Bureau of Transportation Statistics. And 2.1% were canceled from 2005 through 2010 during the winter holiday period, which typically runs from mid-December into the new year.
And they'll find few empty seats on planes. There are 3.1% fewer seats available on domestic flights this month compared with last December because airlines have cut back, according to a USA TODAY analysis of schedule data from OAG-The Official Airline Guide.
All this means you may not reach your destination on time if delays ripple through the nation's air traffic network. If you miss a connecting flight, or if your flight is canceled, there are simply fewer seats available on subsequent flights.
"As load factors get higher and higher, carriers know and customers ought to be aware, when there are unscheduled disruptions, it's going to be difficult or impossible to get them rerouted on time," says Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst at R.W. Mann & Co. in New York.
Travelers need look no further than last Christmas for what can happen. Because of snowstorms in Europe and on the U.S. East Coast, 117,629 domestic flights — about one-third of all flights — were delayed. And 16,422 flights were canceled from Dec. 18 to Jan. 2, according to FlightStats, which provides global flight status data.
So far this December, there hasn't been much snow. A storm crossing the South and into the East will probably bring mostly rain to those areas through midweek with some light snow possible Tuesday along its northern fringe in the central U.S. For much of the country, the week ahead looks calm, according to the National Weather Service.
That's welcome news to Paul Mayo, who hasn't had much luck traveling during Christmas week. Last year, his flight home through London was canceled when a snowstorm shut down the airport, so he had to go through Munich.
The year before, a blizzard hit Washington, D.C., canceling his connection home to Orlando. He could have been stranded in Zurich for a week but switched from United Airlines to Air Canada and flew through Toronto, arriving home one day later than planned.
"It's good to know your alternatives if you get snowed in," says Mayo, a frequent traveler from Jensen Beach, Fla.
This year, his strategy was to try to avoid snow and Christmas week travel disruptions. He and his family left Sunday for South Africa, where they were to hop a cruise to Singapore. "We avoid D.C., Paris and London as much as possible," he says.
There are some bright spots for fliers this year. The Transportation Security Administration no longer requires children under 12 to take off their shoes. And it's trying to keep them from having to go though pat-downs at airport security checkpoints.
To ease privacy concerns, the TSA has also upgraded 250 body scanners and added 100 with new technology that produces a generic image of travelers, says TSA spokesman Greg Soule. The new equipment could also speed lines because security officers can view the images at the checkpoint rather than in a remote location, Soule says.
Be warned, though, that if any wrapped gifts set off alarms, officers can search them. Wrapped gifts are not banned, but you may be better off wrapping them at your destination.
Anything that speeds security lines is bound to please passengers. Other factors — crowded overhead bins on packed flights, paying more for tickets and not much recourse if your flight is delayed or canceled — are likely to fray nerves.
Because of fees to check a bag on most airlines, overhead bins are jammed on good days. The coming days could be worse.
This week and next, airlines expect many of their planes to be more than 90% full some days. In November, for example, US Airways' planes were 83.8% full, up 3.2 percentage points from last year — a record high for the month. American Airlines reported its planes were 82.3% full, up 1.9 percentage points from last year.
The reason: Airlines have cut the number of domestic flights to meet the demand for travel in a bid to be profitable amid uncertain economic times. In all, there are 4.6% fewer flights in December than a year ago, according to the USA TODAY analysis of OAG data.
"We still have arguably a somewhat uncertain economy nationally and internationally. We still have high and extremely volatile fuel prices," says Tim Smith, a spokesman for American, in explaining the cut in seats. "We're trying to do a better job of balancing supply and demand."
The result of matching capacity with demand: higher fares. Last week, Delta, American, United-Continental, US Airways and Virgin America made the 22nd attempt to raise domestic fares this year, according to FareCompare.com. They eventually rolled back the increases when low-cost carriers such as Southwest Airlines did not match them.
The airlines have successfully increased fares nine times this year, and Travelocity estimates that the average domestic airfare for Christmas is $406 round trip, up about 5% over last year. Average domestic airfare for New Year's is $356 round trip, a 6% increase over last year.
"What it's really boiling down to is that travelers can expect to pay higher prices for a flight that can end up being more crowded, and unfortunately, if there's disruptions, it can be hard to work through it," says Matthew Jacob, an airlines analyst for ITG Investment Research.
When a flier has recourse
The Transportation Department has instituted new pro-consumer rules. Passengers are entitled to a maximum of $1,300 if they're involuntarily bumped from an oversold flight, nearly double what they used to receive. They can also demand to return to the terminal if their plane sits on a tarmac for more than three hours on domestic flights and four hours on international flights — a change that the airlines argue will make them more likely to cancel flights.
But in most other situations, passengers don't have much recourse. Each airline has different procedures for handling disruptions. Some airlines will try to rebook you on a competing airline's flight if it will get you to your destination sooner, says George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com. But don't count on all of them doing that.
If flights are canceled for mechanical reasons, passengers are typically owed compensation. Although many airlines insist they don't do so, they can also cancel flights if there aren't enough passengers booked to turn a profit, says Warren Chang, vice president and general manager of Fly.com, a travel search engine. "If you suspect this, work your way up the chain of command and politely demand appropriate compensation," he says.
But if the cancellation is caused by severe weather, or an act of God, airlines aren't required to pay for food or lodging on domestic flights, though they are required to on flights leaving the European Union.
Airlines have gotten better about notifying passengers when a flight is canceled or delayed. And if bad weather is expected, airlines typically waive rebooking fees and issue flexible travel policies to let travelers leave earlier or later, or change destinations, says Melissa Klurman, Travelocity's contributing editor. But you might have to pay a fee to change your destination.
If your flight is canceled while you're at the airport, Klurman recommends calling the airline while waiting in line to talk to the gate agent.
If it looks like you will be stuck overnight and you have a traveling companion, she recommends dispatching that person to make a reservation at the airport hotel. If the hotel's already booked, choose a hotel that has free transportation to and from the airport, she says. Keep in mind that a hotel room might be pricey: Orbitz estimates that rates are up by 18% in the top 10 destinations over Christmas, from $123.08 to $145.19.
One piece of advice consistently given by veteran travelers: No matter how frustrated you get, stay calm.
"Getting loud rarely helps," says Greg Knight, a vice president of a machine tool automation company in Columbus, Ohio.
A few years ago, Knight and his co-workers were stranded in Chicago on a business trip a couple of days before Christmas because of an ice storm at their destination in Ohio. They couldn't even drive home because parts of the interstates were shut down. They eventually got back Christmas Eve.