web Musings of The Global Traveller

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Midnight delays and how to deal with trips in vain

The other night I was reminded just how unpleasant a lengthy delay can be in the middle of the night. My red eye flight was pushed back an hour at a time for a few hours in total and ended up leaving just before 3am. The frustrating bit was not being able to snooze during the wait as I was unsure if the latest announced boarding time was accurate, or if the gate would change yet again (it did change once). That the flight disappeared from the terminal monitors at the time of the scheduled departure did not help as we were totally reliant on announcements made at the gate.

During the wait I wondered what would happen if the flight delay turned into a cancellation. My tight schedule would mean I wouldn't be able to rebook for the next day on the same airline (it operated once daily), or reroute on the same airline, or be rebooked on the one other airline serving the route.

On a similar vein I calculated that my pull out time was about 4am. Earlier in the year I had to pull out of two trips - coincidentally from the same airport on a single route (different from this redeye) but on 2 different airlines. The first one was caused by a mechanical issue and I determined I would not return to origin in time to make an onward flight on a separate ticket. The second one was caused by bad weather at the destination airport but with the same problem. For this latest time, it was again a mechanical issue (on the same airline - bad luck probably but readers may wish to avoid being on my American Airlines flights!) but again the same problem with onward flights on separate ticket.

Fortunately I didn't reach the pull out time. But for the benefit of others, here is what I do. The situation I describe can be called a "trip in vain". The same applies if for example you are doing a short trip to another city to hold a meeting but the delays mean you cannot reasonably hold a meeting (eg your 6 hours in that city turn into 1 hour). If you have flexible tickets, or have status with that airline or it's alliance partners, then you can get the ticket cancelled and fare refunded (possibly with a small penalty). Another strategy to take to protect against this, instead of buying expensive flexible tickets, is to buy dirt cheap ones (if you don't fly but it cost you peanuts then the lost value by not flying is no big deal). You'd have to cancel a high proportion of such tickets for the cheap approach to be worse off than the expensive flexible tickets approach, although there could be other reasons for booking flexible fares.

With some airlines, you also have the option of rebooking. However it very much depends on airline policy as to whether this is worthwhile.

Some are very flexible and will let you rebook for free even if there is no availability in your booking class. A year or so ago I had a trip in vain due to weather issues on Air New Zealand and, thanks to my status I guess, my cheap ticket was rebooked as an expensive ticket at a later date that suited me - score extra miles and improved customer loyalty in return for the airline going the extra mile.

Others require payment of rebooking fee unless the cause of delay was totally within their control (eg if weather played a part then rebooking fee applies but if mechanical or crew issues then no rebooking fee), and/or require availability in the original booking class or payment of fare difference. I had a trip in vain on a dirt cheap sale fare on Qantas that was worth a whopping $2 as credit or could be used if the exact same sale reappeared on dates that work for me - result is a pissed off customer annoyed that I had wasted my money on something I could not use due to what I perceived as being caused due to the airline's actions.

Since policy varies so much it is worthwhile asking specifically if you have any options for cancelling or rebooking your trip in vain. Give your ticket details (including booking class if you know it or at least mention if it is first or business class) and your highest relevant elite status or airline club membership if you have any. Sometimes rules are bent for high price tickets, club members or high status passengers. Ask as soon as is practical (in the club lounge if you have access or the nearest ticketing desk). If you don't like the answer just say you want to consider your options and try calling the airline later, just in case the agent was lazy or offered incorrect advice or you get lucky with the rule-bending the second time around.

Back to the recent redeye. When we eventually left (with a scant 2 minutes until the crew went out of hours), I was so tired having already been up about 40 hours that I crashed asleep at the end of the safety briefing and only awoke a few minutes before landing. The sweet flight attendant apologised for not having enough time to now serve me my meal.

1 comment:

Steamboat Lion said...

Why am I not at all surprised that you had a happy experience rebooking with NZ and a crappy one with QF? Absolutely consistent with my experience with both airlines (I'm QF platinum and I still hate them). A big reason I often fly LA to Aus via AKL instead of direct (plus the business fare is usually a lot less and I like the NZ business seats...)