Flying in a pandemic: Travel experts share top tips for troubleshooting airline mishaps

Aug 17, 2021

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You’ve no doubt been reading about — or have found yourself caught up in — a seemingly endless cycle of flight disruptions this summer. There was Spirit Airlines’ operational meltdown or the extended run delays and cancellations logged by American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and other airlines this summer. The culprits? Bad weather, serious staffing shortages, unruly passengers, power outages, assorted maintenance issues — take your pick.

As we start closing out the summer and heading into the fall travel season, many of these flight challenges are likely to persist. And right now, in our new pandemic world, once things do go wrong with a flight, finding a fix can be tougher than ever thanks to thinner flight schedules and long wait times for those seeking help on the phone or in line from stretched-to-the-limit airline customer service teams.

So, how can you stack the flying odds in your favor? TPG asked several travel experts for their best advice.

Some of these tips may not be news to frequent travelers. But we’re all a bit rusty when it comes to travel right now, so it might be helpful to have a refresher. And we can all learn some new strategies for smoothing things out as we get back on the road.

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‘Book the first flight of the day.’ Still the best advice?

“While the old tried-and-tested adage of taking first flights of the day still holds true, the recent shortages of flight and cabin staff mean that even that wise piece of advice will not necessarily hold true in the short term,” says John Grant of travel data provider OAG.

But while Grant notes that 90% of flights do operate on time, Christina Pedroni, senior vice president of Liberty Travel, advises travelers to book an early flight if they can.

“It’s already taking longer for people to be processed in airports due to new rules and regulations,” says Pedroni. “And if flights get delayed for any reason, that buildup carries on through the day.” If the plane is at the airport, as opposed to flying in from another destination, “Your best bet for a flight leaving on time is still earlier in the day,” she says.

Brett Snyder, president of the Cranky Flier aviation site and Cranky Concierge travel service, agrees.

“In the morning you do generally have a better chance of being on time. Unless of course, you’re going to San Francisco, because of all the morning fog.”

These days there are some other pandemic-related reasons to start your travel day early. While airports and airlines are doing their best to keep terminal facilities and aircraft sanitized, much of the deep cleaning is still done overnight. So, for the first flights of the day, you have a better chance that the surfaces you encounter will be clean.

Starting early is good, but “I also suggest booking a nonstop when available,” says Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and president of the Atmosphere Research Group. “Not only will the nonstop save time, but you’re exposed to fewer people since you don’t have to make a connection.”

Related: What staffing shortages mean for your summer vacation

Be vigilant

This new era of pandemic travel means you need to stay on your toes.

“Our biggest advice to travelers right now is to be as vigilant and flexible as possible,” says Willis Orlando, member operations specialist for Scott’s Cheap Flights. “When we say be vigilant, we mean, once you’ve booked a flight, log in to the airline’s website and check your itinerary regularly — maybe once a week or so.”

Orlando notes that airlines have been changing flights left and right, but not doing a great job of letting customers know when things have changed. “We’ve heard from co-workers and members about times when their flight was outright canceled weeks ahead of time, and the airline didn’t send as much as an email to notify them. So, log in and check your itinerary often.”

Related: Airlines are changing schedules; here’s how to handle inconvenient new flight times

Airline schedules matter. Your (padded) schedule matters too

“I do not recommend choosing airlines that don’t offer at least one flight a day, or five flights a week,” says Harteveldt. “If bad weather or mechanical problems occur, the airline has fewer ways to get you to your destination. Also, remember that some airlines do not have reciprocal ticketing agreements with other carriers. The list includes Southwest and almost all of the budget airlines.”

Everyone we talked to agrees that right now it is also very important to give yourself extra buffer time and get to the airport early. “It’s taking a lot longer at the airport even with less people flying than pre-COVID given all the new protocols around validating proof of vaccines, negative COVID tests, cleaning, etc.,” says Pedroni of Liberty Travel.

“Things have been choppy in the recovery,” says Snyder at Cranky Flier. “Sometimes you’ll find long lines, sometimes you won’t. It’s just really tough to predict as schedules and systems come back in fits and starts.”

Smaller airports have always offered some time-saving benefits, such as shorter lines and cheaper or more close-in parking, “but airlines are coming back in different ways in different airports so your flight options may be limited,” he added.

The advice to give yourself more time right now applies to avoiding flights with tight connections. “If you miss your connecting flight there are fewer options than pre-COVID with a lot less scheduled flights and more full flights,” says Predoni, “so the next ‘available’ flight could be a day or more away.”

Booking longer connection times and adding more buffer between your inbound flight and the next one not only reduces the likelihood that you’ll miss the next flight and have to race through an airport (with a mask on), but it also increases the likelihood that your checked bags will join you on your next flight.

“I realize this adds to the time en route,” says Harteveldt, “and that spending time at an airport for most people is about as fun as a visit to the DMV. But this may reduce some stress.”

Related: More and more airlines are requiring surgical masks

What to pack for the airport

It has always been a good idea to arrive at the airport prepared with all your gadgets charged and backup paper copies of your boarding pass and important documents. Charged gear, backup power and extension cords are more important now because you don’t want to have to huddle with others around the power outlets. Especially during a flight delay.

Pack snacks. Airport food has always been expensive. “Now it can also be limited,” says Julie Melnick of SkySquad, a company that provides personal assistant services at some airports. “For your travel day, bring snacks that you love so that you will be happy. And if you love airport food, be prepared to wait in line. Crowds are large and everyone is short-staffed.”

High-energy snacks will come in handy if you end up having to solve a flight problem at the airport. “My best advice is to use every channel you have available to avoid being delayed or missing a connection,” says Snyder. He suggests getting on the phone to call your airline reservations center, getting online at the gate or customer service center, and checking alternate flight schedules at the airline’s website so you know what your options are.

“Attack it in all those ways,” says Snyder. “And if you’ve booked through a travel agent, they can often help by tracking your journey and rebooking you in their system.” If you have access to an airline lounge through a program like Priority Pass, or can access a lounge on a day rate, the staff there can often help rebook your flights too — with the added benefit of snacks and drinks nearby.

Besides bookmarking the website of your airline and the airlines that also serve the city you are heading to (and those nearby), experts suggest following your airline on social media. (You can always unfollow later.) When delays or other issues start creeping in, social media is where you might learn about it first. And some airlines are quicker to respond on social media channels than on the phone to customers seeking help.

Related: 6 items to bring for sleeping in the airport

A few other tools may come in handy.

Travel and health restrictions for domestic and international can change quickly now. Sherpa is a website doing a good job of posting up-to-date information about the travel documentation that you need to avoid being turned away at the airport or by your airline.

FlightAware lets you, and others, keeps tabs on your flight and can often give you a heads-up on a delay before your airline does.

If you know (or suspect) you’re going to be spending extra hours in an airport, see if Minute Suites has a location nearby (they’re now in seven airports) or check Hotels by Day for a hotel nearby that may be offering a reasonably priced day rate.

And what about travel insurance? Get it, says Pedroni of Liberty Travel, “but know what you’re covered for.”

Related: Some countries no longer accept paper CDC vaccine cards. Here’s how you can prove vaccination status

Featured photo by David McNew/Getty Images.

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