As Roger and Pat Bate hustled to catch a plane home to Houston, they got the dreaded call that many will receive from their airline this year.
There was a problem with the crew, the plane, something – the Continental employee was not sure. The Bates needed to find another way home.
“There were a lot of unhappy faces in line” at the ticket counter, Pat said. “If they told us to come back the next morning, we were not going to be easy to get along with.”
It is a call that millions of passengers received as airlines canceled nearly 65,000 flights so far this year. That is almost as many as all of 2007, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, and travelers should be ready to be even more flexible as airlines carve chunks out of their schedules later this year.
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UAL Corp.'s United Airlines said it will cut as many as 14 percent of available seats on domestic flights by the end of the year. American Airlines will slash as much as 12 percent after the peak summer travel season, and Continental Airlines Inc. will reduce about 11 percent in seating capacity starting in September.
Delta Air Lines Inc., Northwest Airlines Corp. and US Airways Group Inc. said they plan cuts of 13 percent, 9.5 percent and 8 percent, respectively, by the end of the year.
Airlines hope that by offering fewer travel options they can boost fares and better deal with soaring fuel costs that have overwhelmed the industry. But airline observers say many passengers who bought their tickets months in advance are going to have to scramble to fit new flights into their plans.
It is unfair, Minneapolis-based airline expert Terry Trippler said. Airlines “are the ones who've underpriced their product for the last two or three years,” he said. “You cannot take people's money four and five and six months out, and then one month out say ‘it's changed.'”
The capacity cuts also mean that later this year airlines might have less wiggle room to reposition passengers if there are unexpected cancellations.
Kate Hanni, executive director of the Coalition for Airline Passengers Rights, Health and Safety in Napa, Calif., said she's advertising for more volunteers to staff a hot line this fall for stranded passengers.
“We're getting 400 calls a day already,” Hanni said. Her hot line, 1-877-flyers-6, helps stranded travelers deal with the airlines.
United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said her airline has a network of spare planes that it can mobilize. It also staffs a “day of departure” desk that responds to unexpected schedule changes.
“We'll know a few hours, or even a day, if a storm is coming,” she said. “They'll stop selling tickets on the flights to keep some seats open in case they need to reschedule.”
In general, airlines try to accommodate bumped passengers with compatible schedules and will offer refunds if necessary.
Despite the number of cancellations, consumer advocates say most travelers still don't realize their flight might not be waiting for them at the airport. With the summer travel season under way, people should keep a number of things in mind, they said.
Be prepared to get bumped. Come to the airport early, bring your printed itinerary and keep your cell phone charged.
Know your rights. Read the airline's “Contract of Carriage” policy. It's usually available online or at the ticket counter.
Have an assigned seat. “If you don't have an assigned seat, you are the most likely candidate for not getting on the flight,” Hanni said.
Know alternate routes to your destination. “If your flight's canceled, it's a lot easier if you can walk up to the agent and say ‘What about American through Dallas,'” Trippler said.