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SEAT 2B | By Joe Brancatelli

The Waiting Game

How to cope when widespread delays hit the air travel system.

Passengers wait in line to rebook cancelled flights at Terminal 5 on March 28 at Heathrow Airport in London.
Passengers wait in line to rebook cancelled flights at Terminal 5 on March 28 at Heathrow Airport in London. (Peter Macdiarmid - Getty Images)
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By Joe Brancatelli
Portfolio.com: Business Travel
Tuesday, April 1, 2008; 1:53 PM

As far as I can tell, 1963 was the last time that passengers were treated well at an airport after a flight disruption. It was at London's Heathrow Airport, and a gaggle of jet-setters had been grounded by fog. They were escorted to a private lounge, fed lavishly, doted on by uniformed attendants, and given overnight rooms at a nearby hotel.

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It all happened in a movie, of course, and the kid-gloves treatment of distressed passengers, including Orson Welles, in Terence Rattigan's The V.I.P.s, was about as realistic as Richard Burton impetuously writing a huge check to bail out a stranger's business and Elizabeth Taylor fitting her Givenchy-designed costume changes in a carry-on.

In the real world, life at the airport when our flight is delayed or canceled is more like a bad cop movie. We're treated like perps -- given little or no truthful information about our situation; held incommunicado from the outside world; herded in groups; fed institutional slop; and forced to sleep on floors or in hard chairs.

Decades of experience with airlines that screw up and don't deliver on their schedules has helped me to rewrite the script. I can't get you V.I.P. treatment, but I can guarantee that you'll do better than the madding crowd during your next long delay.

Don't Get Stuck at the Airport

The best airport layover is the one you never have. I don't leave on a business trip these days without mapping out five or six other flights and routings to my destination. During the chaos of widespread flight delays or cancellations, gate and ticket agents won't always have access to the latest travel information. If you have all the options at your fingertips, you'll have the best chance of getting out with minimal hassle. And don't forget: Airport agents aren't the only folks who can reroute you. If you've booked with a travel agent, call for help. If you've booked directly with the airline, dial its reservations number. The phone agents won't be as busy as the on-the-scene employees and can rework your plans more quickly and efficiently.

Establish a Base of Operations

If you're going to spend several hours at the airport, you'll need a comfortable, well-equipped place to regroup. There's only one spot like that: the airport club. Airlines still operate the kinds of private lounges depicted in The V.I.P.s but only if you're traveling in a premium class on an international flight. The rest of the time, you'll need to be a paid member of a club or have a Priority Pass card. If you haven't listened to my sage earlier advice, fear not: Many clubs will sell you a day membership for about $50. It's a small price to pay for refuge.

Load Up Your Laptop

Waiting out a long delay can be a nightmare if you don't have a conduit to the outside world. Besides obvious diversions -- internet access and music and video entertainment -- I've supplemented my laptop with two extras: Slingbox software, so I can tap into my home television system, and The Complete New Yorker, which includes every issue in the magazine's 80-year history. I never want for reading material. (The New Yorker is owned by the same folks who publish Portfolio.com, but I bought my software at retail long before I agreed to sit in Seat 2B.)

Have a Nice Meal

There's a term for having to hang around an airport: It's called dwell time, and it's why airports have transformed themselves into shopping malls and food courts. I have no use for airport shopping but am happy to linger over a good meal. Many airports now have branches of beloved local eateries, and chef-entrepreneurs like Todd English and Wolfgang Puck are building airport-specific chains. Even the formidable Gordon Ramsay has ventured into airport dining; his aptly named Plane Food opened last week in Heathrow's troubled new Terminal 5. You can drink in style at airports too. A chain of surprisingly cool wine bars called Vino Volo is sprouting up at airports around the nation.

Get a Good Bed

In worst-case scenarios -- when you're stuck overnight -- don't wait for your airline to provide accommodations. Even if it's willing to pony up, the lodgings may only be a step above a hot-sheets motel. And you'll wait hours for a voucher and a shuttle bus. Arrange your own accommodations and argue with the airline about compensation later. I've programmed my mobile phone with the reservation numbers of my favorite hotel chains, and I call immediately to beat the crowds. Alternately, make a reservation online. If you don't have a preferred hotel chain, consult the appropriately named AirportHotelGuide.com.

The Fine Print . . .

Getting stranded at the airport has spawned its own diva: Harriet Baskas has published a book called Stuck at the Airport; profiled dozens of airports for Expedia.com; writes a monthly airport column for USAToday.com; and recently launched a Stuck at the Airport blog.

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To contact Joe, visit his Contributor's page on Portfolio.com.


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