August 17, 2000 -- This is not news: Record-breaking traffic, horrendous summer storms in the East and Midwest and the operational meltdown of the nation's largest airline are causing excruciating flight delays for business travelers around the nation.
This is what we live with: Delays of an hour or more on even the shortest flights, frequent cancellations and harrowing tales of travelers required to spend two or three days getting home.
This is what we should do: Reschedule business trips for the fall.
Of course, we probably won't reschedule. So, if you must travel in the next few weeks, here are some practical tips to help keep you sane and on schedule.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT FLIGHTS
It doesn't seem to be commonly known, but all travel agents, airline-reservation clerks and on-line travel services have access to official on-time ratings for every scheduled domestic flight. Ask about this one-to-10 rating because it summarizes the historic on-time performance of a specific flight. When everything else is equal, choose the flight with the highest on-time rating. And beware of flights with no rating at all. "Unrated" flights may mean the service is too new to have a rating, but it may also mean the airline has changed flight numbers to mask its historically poor on-time performance on that route.
KNOW THE JARGON
Don't get caught in airline speak: There are differences between connecting, direct and nonstop flights. A "connecting" flight means you must disembark and change aircraft en route. A "direct" flight means you and your aircraft will make at least one stop along the way. Only a nonstop flight guarantees you'll fly to your destination without stopping. Always choose a nonstop when available because the fewer stops or plane changes you make along the way, the smaller the chance of your being delayed.
FLY EARLY IN THE DAY
As we all know, the nation's major airlines use a convoluted "hub-and-spoke" system to move planes around the nation. This might be efficient for airlines, but not for travelers. That's because the hub-and-spoke system is susceptible to an infuriating "cascade" effect: Delays in the morning in one part of the nation build up and begin destroying the on-time efficiency of airports across the country later in the day. The best way to beat the system? Fly early in the morning. The earlier the better, in fact. Most airports register their best on-time performance before 8 a.m. and are still handling flights smoothly before 11 a.m. Conversely, the worst delays at most airports begin around 4 p.m. and peak during the evening rush hour.
FLY EARLY IN THE MONTH
Whenever your schedule permits, fly early in the month. As delays pile up during the month, airline employees run out of "duty time," the total number of monthly hours they are legally permitted to work. Airlines are often forced to cancel flights during the last week of every month because they do not have enough employees with available duty time to fly all the planes.
KNOW THE FACTS
A little Internet sleuthing will yield a cornucopia of facts about delays. For example, the Department of Transportation's monthly Air Travel Consumer Report offers hour-by-hour on-time arrival and departure ratings for more than two dozen of the nation's busiest airports. It also offers an overall on-time rating for 150 additional airports and the nation's ten leading airlines. The data is 60 days old when published, but a careful reading will help you plan strategically. Need tactical information? Try the FAA Web site [http://www.fly.faa.gov], which offers real-time delay information for 40 important U.S. airports.
KNOW YOUR AIRPORTS
Even savvy travelers are going to be delayed sometime during this summer of our discontent. But you can make your on-the-ground downtime more productive if you know what facilities a particular airport offers. Most airports have a Web site and each offers details about on-site dining, business centers and other retailers. You'll also find a list of hotels, handy intelligence should you need an unexpected overnight stay while waiting out a delay.