I book a bunch of trips every month (fun fact: I cancel about 40-50% of them), and as a result I’ve developed a playbook for how to handle flights as departure nears. And by using the playbook I’m able to get around most delays as long as there’s more than a single option for flights. I’m also usually able to do that without waiting in any lines at the airport or gate, and without sitting in the airport watching rolling delays.
To wit: Yesterday my original flight was delayed by a little over two hours because the aircraft was passing through SLC earlier in the day, and SLC had a big winter-storm at the same time. The delay for my flight didn’t post until about 15 minutes before boarding. But, I knew it was going to happen hours prior and I already had a backup plan. I wanted to write up my game-day playbook to give you ideas for doing the same in the future so let’s dive in eh?
About 12 hours before departure:
- Check the FAA Delay Map for a quick view on any airports that aren’t operating at, err, peak-efficiency
- Check flightaware for the booked flight
- Figure out where the aircraft is coming from
- Click “track inbound flight” repeatedly until I see all the aircraft’s prior flights to its inbound flight, and I also note the time on the ground between flights for each airport the aircraft will stop at (anything less than 45 minutes is almost certainly an airline pipe dream, and you can assume that those legs will be delayed)
- Set alerts in the airline’s app or in flightaware for the flight and for the inbound flight
Once I know where the bad airports are and I know all the routes my inbound aircraft is flying before getting to me, I’ll have a good sense for whether or not my flight will be delayed due to weather, congestion, airport closures, or other external factors (of course mechanical issues, dented aircraft, San Francisco fog, or any other number of things could delay the flight too — but those things are harder to predict).
If my flight is going to pass through an airport on the delay map or if it has a bunch of overly optimistic 20 minute turns (I’m looking at you, United Express), I’ll proactively call the airline and ask nicely to switch to an alternative flight with a better chance of going out (side note: I use ITA Matrix with forced carriers to find alternatives that may not appear on the airline’s own site.) At 12 hours out, getting another routing is easier than you probably think it is — often just saying “the plane is flying through Newark in a few hours and Newark has major delays, could I switch?” is enough to get the alternative routing you want.
About 2 hours before departure:
- Check the FAA Delay Map again
- Check flightaware again
- Check the airline’s status page for my flight and the inbound
Again, I’m at a decision point: if anything looks sketchy, I may want to jump to my own backup booking or rebook on an alternative flight on the same airline. The two hour mark here is key because alternative flights probably haven’t filled up, none of them are likely to be under gate-control, and other non-avgeek passengers on your flight haven’t done anything proactively yet. This is also the point where if you call the airline it’s very easy to switch to another flight by mentioning issues with the inbound aircraft, even if they haven’t posted in the airline’s system. (Side note: New ticketing while a flight is under gate-control is something I don’t wish on my worst enemy, it’s like another layer of hell.)
The first thing to check when boarding time hits is whether or not the aircraft is at the gate. If it’s not, you’re probably going to be delayed and it may be again time to jump to flightaware to see where the aircraft is. (Hopefully it’s not diverted to Lubbock, TX, which has happened to me twice. Thanks United Airlines.)
Most US airlines board 5-10 minutes later than the boarding time printed on the boarding pass or at the podium, but it’s very rare for the airline to start boarding any later than those 10 minutes unless something is going on. If 15 minutes have passed from the posted boarding time and no one is getting on, it’s time to investigate: Is the aircraft door open? Is the gate door open? Is anyone walking around the aircraft? Is luggage being loaded? Is there someone with a maintenance vest wandering around?
If anything looks fishy, it’s time to explore alternatives on the current airline and other airlines, so if/when a delay posts I already know what I want to do and what’s available. If I think the airline is going to have a long hold-time or wait at the lounge/customer service desk, I may dial-in or line-up to get myself in the queue at this point too.
The last thing I do once I’m on-board is cancel any backup flights that I may have booked. Trying to do anything else with your itinerary is basically out of your hands at that point, so, the only thing left to do is to get annoyed when you’re approaching your destination and the flight attendant announces “ladies and gentlemen, we’ve been cleared to land so please […]”. Why should you be annoyed by that? Well, I absolutely, positively guarantee that you haven’t been cleared to land — that happens within 3-5 miles of the airport, or the last two minutes or so of the flight. The more you know.
Happy weekend travel hackers!