I was walking up the passenger bridge to my flight just after noon when I saw a dour-looking first officer coming my way, flashlight in hand.
“That can’t be a good sign,” I thought to myself. know.
Indeed it wasn’t. After sitting at a gate at Dallas/Fort Worth for about an hour, a mechanical was declared irreparable and a full flight en route to Los Angeles was invited to disembark and reassemble in what the flight attendant euphemistically called “the boarding lounge.” But, she cautioned, “don’t go too far. All the other flights to Los Angeles are sold out today, so we’re going to have to find you a new plane.”
After a few missteps, a planeload of passengers dutifully tromped several hundred yards to a new gate and a plane that we were told “is being brought from the hanger.” The captain, first officer, cabin crew and an assortment of LA-bound business travelers and Hawaii-bound tourists stewed as the new departure time slid by, was rescheduled and slid again. When the replacement plane appeared, boarding was further delayed because, the gate agent said, “We’re trying to cool it down. It must be 120 degrees on board.”
Finally, we dutifully repeated the boarding drill. We used the same boarding passes we used two hours before. The same people who rushed to the front of the queue rushed to the front of the queue again. The folks with the oversized carry-on luggage once again wrestled their bags into the overhead bins. Passengers who dangled gigantic backpacks from their shoulders and inadvertently whacked seated flyers two hours ago dangled the same bags and whacked the same travelers.
Welcome to the 2005 summer flying season, which is shaping up to be one of the most crowded, most delayed, most annoying and most exasperating in history. Number crunchers say that about 200 million Americans will fly between Memorial Day and Labor Day. That’s about the same number as the regrettable summer of 2000.
This year, however, summer flyers face a system shriveled by hundreds of thousands of front-line layoffs and groaning under fleets of delay-inducing regional jets. Flyers will also be trying to juggle the shoes, laptops and other personal accoutrements the Transportation Security Administration separates them from at security checkpoints. And they’ll probably have leaking bags of fast food, too, since there seems to be the common belief that flying a few hours without a meal guarantees death by starvation.
What’s a weary business traveler to do in the face of this summer onslaught? Sitting out the season sounds good, of course, but many of our schedules won’t permit that. So try these 10 Commandments of Summer Flying. The sanity you save may be your own.
*First commandment: Thou shalt plan better
Availability is likely to be tight all summer. A few cancellations here and there — or a summer storm that knocks out a hub for several hours — will cause chaos. Don’t assume the airline will have seats to re-accommodate you. Protect yourself: Have airline, hotel and car-rental reservation numbers programmed into your mobile phone or PDA. Research your alternatives on other carriers or via other hubs before you reach the airport. The more you know your options and how to book them, the better your chances of mitigating the damage.
*Second commandment: Thou shalt dress the part
Too many frequent flyers still live in sartorial fantasyland at the airport. Lose the sports jackets and suit jackets, folks. Jackets are just another thing the TSA makes you run through the X-ray machine. Ditto belts with huge, metal buckles. And can I please introduce you to the concept of loafers? The only thing sadder than watching a sharp-dressed man doggedly retrieving his wrinkled Armani jacket from a dusty plastic security bin while struggling to get back into his five-eyelet oxfords is watching a well-dressed woman juggling her jacket, her pocketbook, her rolling bag and her laptop while trying to lace up her running shoes. Oh, one more thing: What are you people with hats and caps thinking? Off with your headgear.
*Third commandment: Thou shalt bag it
If you want to travel with a pocketful of change and keys and a waist full of gear — cell phones, iPods, Blackberries, pagers — at least be smart about it. Before you get on the security line, dump it all in a zippered plastic bag and throw it in your carry-on. Do you really want to spend the summer fishing pagers and pennies out of plastic bins while you’re searching for your shoes and laptop and you’ve already stuck your boarding pass and ID between your teeth because you’ve run out of hands?
*Fourth commandment: Thou shalt get a club
For the millionth time: Airport clubs are the single best investment you can make in your own comfort and productivity on the road. Yes, membership fees are higher than they used to be. Yes, some airlines have cut back on locations and hours. So what? How can you balance minor annoyances against the possibility of waiting out delayed and canceled flights this summer in the relative quiet and comfort of a private lounge with workstations, stocked bars and cushy chairs? Get a membership to the club sponsored by the airline you fly most frequently. Augment that with Priority Pass, a private operation that gives you visitation privileges at more than 450 airport clubs around the world. And remember: Diners Club cardholders have access to a network of clubs at several dozen international airports. And elite American Express cardholders have day-of-travel privileges at Northwest, Continental and Delta clubs when they are flying on those airlines.
*Fifth commandment: Thou shalt fly early in the day
I am not a morning person, but I can’t ignore the obvious and neither should you. More than a decade of data in the monthly Air Travel Consumer Report consistently show that flying early in the day minimizes your chances of flight delays. So get on the earliest flights you can book. And do your homework: The Travel Report offers hour-by-hour statistics on when major airports operate most efficiently.
*Sixth commandment: Thou shalt pack less and carry on
Checked bags complicate travel, so pack less and carry on whenever possible. One effective strategy: Go monochrome with your wardrobe. When you stay within a single color palette, you maximize your ability to mix-and-match clothes, shoes and accessories. Another good strategy if you travel to a particular location on a regular basis: Make one hotel your base of operations, then ask the hotel to store your clothes between trips. Also, consider shipping your bags. Companies such as SportsExpress.com offer overnight, one- or two-day service and the price is competitive when you consider the time you waste waiting to check your bags and then waiting for them to come off the carousel.
*Seventh commandment: Thou shalt fly up front
It goes without saying that we’d all rather be flying first than coach, but this summer that strategy is financially viable, too. In January, Delta capped most first-class fares at $599 maximum each-way and most of the Big Six reacted accordingly. Since you probably aren’t getting the lowest fare anyway, the gap between what you actually pay for a coach seat and a chair up front might only be a couple of hundred dollars each way. And airlines such as AirTran and Spirit offer cheap upgrade schemes worth exploring.
*Eighth commandment: Thou shalt not lie to yourself
If you must sit in coach this summer, be realistic: Don’t expect flight time to be productive work time. Planes are going to be too crowded and noisy for all but the most mindless tasks. Don’t screw up a trip because you blithely factored in four hours of laptop time in flight.
*Ninth commandment: Thou shalt manage technology better
Frequent flyers have let the gadget thing get out of hand. If you’re traveling with a laptop, Blackberry, PDA, mobile phone, music player, noise-reducing headphones and pager –or any large combination of those– you’re traveling with too much stuff. Leave some gear — and the attendant power adapters, cables and accessories — behind. And make sure you are fully charged. Your humble scribe was fine with the delay in Dallas on Monday because the A Concourse had wireless Internet. Except the battery on my laptop was dead. I wanted to whack myself upside the head with my own carry-on bag …
*Tenth commandment: Thou shalt smile and be nice
If ever there was a moment for attitude adjustment, this summer is the one. Tempers are short: Airline employees are worried about their jobs and are being asked to work two or three times harder than ever. We business travelers are tired and stressed. And leisure travelers seem more clueless and oblivious than last summer. So make an extra effort to smile, be nice and control your anger. You really will be surprised at how much more pleasant even the worst flight will be if you smile broadly and act politely. Relax. Go with the flow. Try a cheery “Good Morning!” to the gate agent. It won’t kill you. You might even get a smile in return.