The Brancatelli File



March 1, 2007 -- One more time, fellow travelers: Congress won't pass a passenger's bill of rights and, even if it does, it won't be anything that will actually help us.

If you want to survive on the road, you are on your own. You are going to have to protect yourself. Arm yourself with the proper information and smart strategies and tactics. And use some of the tips below. They've worked for me in the past and they'll work for you now.

Given how the carriers are treating us these days, it's imperative that you read your airline's contract of carriage again. Each one is slightly different, but they share a common thread: They are written to protect an airline from any reasonable request or expectation that we may have when things go wrong. The brutal reality is that we have virtually no rights at all. Besides the absurdly obvious--airlines don't guarantee their schedules or even that they will take you to where your ticket says you are booked to fly--the contracts absolve the airlines from anything done in their name by their code-share partners or commuter carriers; almost always exempt them from providing room and board if they abandon you overnight in the middle of your itinerary; and specifically say that they are not required to put you on another airline if seats are available. Once upon a time, the experts used to urge you to print out the contract and carry it with you so you could protect your rights at the airport. I say don't bother. The contracts offer you no protection that's worth the cost of the paper you'd use.

Once you realize that your rights are virtually nonexistent, you can concentrate on protecting yourself. Information is protection. The Department of Transportation's monthly Air Travel Consumer Report is a good place to start. It has a wealth of information about on-time performance, lost-luggage rates and even hour-by-hour operations at the nation's leading airports. But you'll find even better and more specific information at You can check your flight's operations for days at a time, assess your airport's performance and find all sorts of practical details about routes, facilities and other variables. Armed with useful information from these sources, you can make comparatively intelligent decisions on when and what carrier to fly.

There are several plausible reasons why you might book a connecting itinerary when there is a nonstop alternative. The price for a connecting trip might be lower; the connection might be on the airline where you have elite frequent flyer status; or a connecting itinerary lets you avoid a nonstop flight that uses a tiny regional jet. But all those plausible explanations simply don't stack up just now. The more the airlines screw up, the more you need to be on a nonstop. It's a simple numbers game: Take two flights when one would get you where you're going and you double your chances of having the airline mess up your schedule.

Since even the shortest flight can now devolve into a multi-day nightmare, you need to have a Plan B and even a plan C. Spend a minute or two before you leave for the airport and make sure that you know the other carriers flying your route. Have a good idea of alternate itineraries you can arrange if your initial flights cancel. This is especially valuable when your trip takes you through a hub en route to your final destination. Always have a back-up plan that uses a different hub. Even in the best of times, the overworked, under-trained and poorly paid ticket-counter, airport-club and gate agents won't know this information. In a chaotic situation, they'll be unwilling or unable to look for alternatives. You've got a better chance of making another connection if you have information about alternate routings and alternative flights at your fingertips.

When an airline or an airport is melting down, you can avoid some of the chaos by having the right numbers programmed into your cellphone. At a minimum, program these numbers: the reservation lines of the airlines you use most frequently, the hotel chains you prefer and major car-rental firms. If you have status in your frequent travel plans and have been given special numbers to call, program those numbers, too. Use a travel agent? Have his or her number in there. With those numbers in your cellphone, you can instantly call and snare a decent hotel room at the airport if you need one. Or you can rent a car and drive to your final destination if necessary. And having the airline rez numbers or a special frequent flyer number to call may help you get priority treatment while the huddled masses tough it out at the overwhelmed ticket counters.

I don't want you to take the road warrior sobriquet too literally, but it's clear that we now need to have access to emergency supplies of food and water when we travel. Find some room in your carry-on bag for a couple of protein or granola bars or some bags of nuts, raisins or trail mix. Anything that is shelf stable, low in sugar and high in nutrients will do. And bottled water is critical. Always leave a moment to stop at a shop beyond the security checkpoint and pick up a bottle or two of water.

For the umpteenth time: Airport clubs are the single best investment you can make in your own comfort, productivity and sanity on the road. They are oases of calm in the maelstrom and they give you access to comfy chairs, workspace, beverages, televisions and Internet access. At a minimum, make sure you're a member of the club sponsored by the airline you fly the most frequently. And consider joining Priority Pass: For prices as low as $99 a year for a pay-per-visit plan or $399 a year for unlimited free access, you'll have entrée to 500 lounges around the world.

There are two kinds of flyers when airlines or airports are in crisis: The hopeless ones who worry about themselves and their checked luggage and the smart ones who travel only with bags they can carry on. Traveling only with carry-on bags changes everything: You can alter your itinerary instantly without worrying about where your checked bags are headed. You always have access to your clothing and supplies no matter how long the delay. And you don't have to beg the airlines in vain for your bags if you're stuck overnight in an unexpected place. Of course, carrying on comes with its own responsibility: You must pack less, cut frills and edit your wardrobe for maximum effect. If you can't get down to carry-on trim, ship excess bags. FedEx and UPS are much more reliable than the airlines anyway.

Look, fellow flyers, this isn't 1997. Everything you need in 2007 is on the Net. We don't have to be strangers in a strange land anymore. You're no longer at the mercy of a snooty concierge at a fancy hotel or a green kid masquerading as the "night manager" of a suburban limited-service property. If it exists and you need it on the road--a 24-hour pharmacy, an ATM, same-day laundry and dry cleaners, clothing shops, a nearby supermarket or a late-night restaurant--you can find it on the Web. And there'll be a map and directions to get you there.

If things go badly and you need to fight it out with an airline after it's screwed you, review my rules for writing an effective complaint letter. And if you feel you have to go further, learn about how you can sue the bastards in the venue that will guarantee you the best chance of success.

Copyright © 1993-2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.