Over the next two months, as we head on into the headaches and bustle of the busy holiday season, air travel is expected to reach last summer’s frantic and unfortunate state of affairs, when packed planes and teeming terminals equaled unhappy customers and record flight delays. This year, the Air Transport Association announced an expected 4% increase in Thanksgiving traffic from last year. Planes will be close to 90% full.
Moreover, winter weather wreaks havoc with flight schedules, and December is a notoriously bad time to try and travel on time. Last year at this time, the top airports for flight delays were Boston, Chicago-O’Hare and Detroit — all cities that experience biting colds and debilitating storms, ice and snow.
To cushion these frustrations, many U.S. airlines will augment their customer service to help travelers survive holiday air travel.
After canceling a large number of flights last summer due to problems with pilots, Northwest Airlines now has a “20 point plan” for travel reliability. They have promised to waive fees for passengers forced to rebook due to bad weather, mechanical problems with the aircraft, or “irregular operations.” Customers can also sign up to be notified right away when flights are delayed or canceled.
American Airlines has been working since 2006 to improve the customer experience at the gate and on board the plane. Beginning this Thanksgiving, AA will withhold a few seats in key markets during peak travel times. Travelers concerned about cancellations can also buy trip insurance on their website.
United Airlines is preparing for the holiday rush with their plan to renew customer commitment: for example, adding staff and letting all passengers, including those with luggage, check in electronically up to 24 hours prior to a flight. By Thanksgiving, United will link all of their computer data bases in order to unify all flight status information, whether obtained online or through a United employee.
However, the real problem is the antiquated air traffic control system. New technology exists and is being developed, but significant improvements will take another decade. Meantime, air travel continues to increase and passenger dissatisfaction remains.
My advice is to prepare for delays: Bring snacks and good book, because you may be there a while.