Podcast #123 — How to Avoid Travel Delays

Earning Status at Camp O'Hare

Earning Status at Camp O’Hare

It’s been a tough travel month for a large portion of the traveling public. Between Delta and Southwest system outages and two straight Thursdays of thunderstorms in the east half of the US, dealing with travel delays has been a part of this month’s travel experience. In this episode, we think about ways to avoid delays, or at least minimize their impact. All this and more at the direct link to the podcast file or listening to it right here by clicking on the arrow below.


Here are the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #123:

  • Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
  • This episode is sponsored by HMSHost, operating the restaurants and bars in the 20 busiest airports in the US, thanking the IT staffs at Southwest and Delta for helping us hit our Q3 revenue numbers. Please use the promo code: KICKOUTTHEPLUG on our website for a 20% thank you card good at any airport.
  • Coming to you from the TravelCommons studios outside of Chicago, IL, at the back end of what’s been kind of a tough couple of weeks of travel. On the surface, it shouldn’t have been. I wasn’t going anywhere particularly exotic — still back and forth to Charlottesville, as well as a quick West Coast loop to Vegas and Irvine, CA. Things actually started going sideways on the Vegas to Orange County flight. This should’ve been a quick hour hop. But then Southwest’s systems tipped over and things kinda just spiraled down from there, even in Vegas. After a while, I got tired of playing the slots; the payout in the airport is lousy anyways. And the beer selection is not the greatest. I got jealous watching the Virgin America flights take off, but at least I wasn’t one of the folks sitting on the tarmac in 110 degree weather waiting for gates to clear. I think my flight ended up taking something like a 4-hour delay. I was just glad my schedule wasn’t tight; that I didn’t have a critical meeting booked that afternoon.
  • The next day, Thursday, I was flying American back to O’Hare and started to get delay notices. I popped open my flight tracking apps — FlightAware and FlightStats and could see the problem — an ugly line of red on the weather map running through Chicago. Being on the west side of that meant things weren’t too bad for me though. Once the thunderstorm line cleared O’Hare, the first planes they launched were heading west — away from the storm line. I took an hour delay. Back in the office on Friday, people flying back from the East Coast were getting in at 2 or 3 in the morning, if they got out at all. I definitely dodged a bullet.
  • Which found its target the next Thursday. I was back in Charlottesville and the delay notices started at 2pm for a 6:30pm flight. That’s not a good sign. Back to FlightAware and FlightStats. It was a replay of the prior Thursday, except this time I was right in the midst of it. Caught up in ORD ground stops, the equipment for my Charlottesville flight couldn’t get out east and eventually cancelled. I drove 2 hours up DC to catch the last flight out of Dulles which by that time was having its own ground stops. The Frontier flight that was supposed to leave at 9:30 finally pushed back at 1:10am. It was my turn to stagger home at 2:30am
  • At first, I thought I wouldn’t fly at all this week, but then I got roped into a Tuesday morning meeting in Atlanta. Not so bad I thought — fly down Monday night, fly back Tuesday afternoon. But then I woke up Monday morning to the news that Delta’s systems had tipped over. Another bullet dodged. I was booked on American going down and United coming back. And both those flights left on time and arrived early.
  • Bridge Music — Arlos Auto Parts and Salvation by Swivel Neck Jones

Following Up

  • So, my wish from the last episode was not granted. My Global Entry renewal was “conditionally approved” but I still have to go in for an interview. They do look busy though. I had to look 3 months out for the first availability in ORD — I got my notice in July and my appointment is in mid-October. I hope they don’t listen to this podcast or follow me on Twitter.
  • I’ve been thru Dulles twice since the last episode. I mentioned my second visit a couple of minutes ago, catching a Frontier flight out of the Z concourse gates. I had never seen any Z gates before in Dulles — and for a good reason. They’re about a half-dozen gates stuffed in a dark hallway at the east end of terminal; the typical “slum concourse” inhabited by budget carriers. On the earlier visit, I was making a connection on United between the two midfield concourses with involved a ride on the old mobile lounges. Now, if you know the history of Dulles airport, you know that these mobile lounges were supposed to be the future of airport design, replacing the fixed gate and concourse structure with mobile gate lounges that would shuttle you out to your plane parked on the tarmac and then raise you up to the door. Not really all that different from what happens in a lot of European airports, but without the hydraulic fun ride at the end. I tweeted a picture of the lounge — really more like a high-clearance bus –which elicited a response from Matt McCurdy with a link to a 1958 video “The Expanding Airport: A Study of Service and Convenience for Washington International” hosted on Vimeo. From the credits, it looks like it was created for the firm that designed Dulles. It’s a 9½-minute video and an absolute must-see; the disconnect between what people thought the future of travel would be and the reality almost 60 years later. Just the contrast between how the architects thought the mobile lounges would look — couches with coffee tables and flower vases with cocktail service, and everyone in suits and dresses — vs. my Twitter picture of people in shorts, t-shirts, and backpacks crammed in, hanging onto poles and straps — is something. Check out the shownotes for Matt’s link to the video. The mobile lounges are slowly being replaced by the new underground light rail system between the main terminal and the midfield concourses. Maybe as fewer people take them, they’ll be able to replace the poles with some nice chintz couches.
  • Last month, a PR agency for Marriott invited me to a launch that was being held at the Windy City Smokeout BBQ event in Chicago. Never one to turn down free BBQ, especially on a Friday afternoon, I went. They were launching a new partnership between their TownePlace Suites brand and Weber grills, where they’re putting Weber gas grills and tools out in the common areas for use by guests. Kinda makes sense for an all-suite hotel — families not looking to eat out every night fire up some burgers on the grill — especially when the TownePlace folks explained that they’re targeting the mid-tier price range. It was kinda entertaining to see the young country pop tarts try to grill pizzas (and, by the way, I apply the pop tart label to both the male and female teams), but I was more interested in understanding how Marriott was positioning their suite brands — how did TownePlace (which I’d never heard of) relate to Residence Inn and SpringHill Suites? The PR folks introduced me to a couple of brand guys who tried to lay it out for me — TownePlace is lower priced but a bit hipper than Residence Inns, but not edgy like Moxy, their new brand targeted at Millennials. And SpringHill never made it into the discussion. I don’t know how well these micro-targets work in the reality of, say, an Orlando or a Houston. Are you really able to hit those target audiences or is it just another brand to sell to a new franchisee so the guy running the combo Courtyard-Residence Inn property a couple miles down the road doesn’t sue you? I dunno, but I got to wonder if these TownePlace properties with the new Webers are also going to provide shuttle service to the nearest Whole Foods?
  • A colleague went to Defcon in Las Vegas last weekend. There’s always interesting stuff coming out of there; always enough to nurture any seed of paranoia you may have lurking in your id. It also makes me a bit more sympathetic to the corporate IT security guys trying to keep up with this stuff. “Video jacking” was the buzzed-about thing this year to keep frequent travelers on the watchout. The attack uses a smartphone’s ability to duplicate video out the micro USB or Lightning port to an HDMI TV. Nice if you want to watch videos from your phone or tablet on your larger hotel TV. A little less nice if you plug your phone into what you think is a charging station. But using these HDMI/Mobile High Definition Link cables which look very similar to straight power cables, your phone screen is duplicated on a TV screen perhaps with a person or video camera watching as you enter your PIN, work your banking apps, pull up that hidden text file with all your passwords written down. Krebs On Security has a good write-up on it, complete with a quick demo video. I’ll put a link in the show notes.
  • We’ve talked before about how full planes and tight seats are breaking down some of the courtesies necessary to survive sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with complete strangers for 2-4 hours straight. Usually it’s not a problem; everyone gets along to go along. On one of my United flights last month, though, this broke down slightly. It started at boarding. I get to my row. There’s a guy already in the middle seat. I tell him I’m in the window. He asks my seat number. Hmmm, little odd, but I tell him, confirming that, yes I can read my boarding pass and that he’s going to have to move out to let me in. He’s a 1K who seems a bit pissed that he’s in a center seat. Perhaps he was hoping to slide over to the window, but if that’s the case, he missed the announcements asking for volunteers. This plane was packed. About 45 minutes into the flight, he looks over at me, exasperated, and says “Fine, if you want the armrest, just take it!” and then bitched about how miserable the middle seat is. Huh? I told him, “We can share it,” I said. “There’s no sharing,” he shot back. “I dunno, I can usually manage that when I’m in the middle.” He looked at me like he wanted to hit me and then thought the better of it. The remaining 2 ½ hours was less-than-comfortable as we sat within inches of each other. You may disagree, but I’m not in with this whole “the middle seat is so miserable that you’re entitled to everything else in the row” idea. I’ve sat in the middle seat a lot and don’t think it’s that bad if you’re in an exit row or, as in this case, in United’s Economy Plus where you have extra legroom. Indeed, I’ll pick those middle seats over a window seat in the back of the plane almost every time. And when I do, I don’t expect any special treatment from my row mates. I manage to arrange my elbows so we all can use the armrests — one of us take the front half, the other the back half. But most of all, I don’t blame my row mates for my seat choice.
  • And if you have any thoughts, questions, a story, a comment, a travel tip – the voice of the traveler, send it along. The e-mail address is comments@travelcommons.com — you can use your smartphone to record and send in an audio comment; send a Twitter message to mpeacock, or you can post your thoughts on the TravelCommons’ Facebook page — or you can always go old-school and post your thoughts on the web site at TravelCommons.com.
  • Bridge Music — Smiling Perspective by General Fuzz

Can We Avoid Travel Delays?

  • Peter Rukavina, a long-time T/C listener, sent me an interesting e-mail at the front part of this week
    • The tweet-stream of travel despair is a frequent enough occurrence as to almost be its own medium now (“@aircanada announces 9 hour delay; help!” etc.). I’m an occasional practitioner myself. My question: to what extent can delays, cancellations, luggage loss, bumping, etc. be mitigated by being travel-savvy? In other words, by traveling smart, how much more control over wrenches thrown into plans do you have?
  • A pretty damned good question, especially given the tales of woe over the past month that I went through at the start of this episode which, I’ll admit, were accompanied by a couple of streams of bitch tweets. We’ll never completely avoid travel despair — complete system failures ought to be “black swan” events, though having 3 full outages (United, Southwest, and Delta) in 13 months suggests maybe they’re not, and flying into smaller places like Charlottesville, VA leave you with few options. But I do think there are things we can do — the consultant in me want to call them “strategies” — that can reduce the probability of a bad time and hopefully reduce the impact when they happen. I’ve talked about some “strategies” in earlier podcasts — focus trips to earn airline and hotel status, don’t check luggage, fly direct, if you have to connect never book a connection less than 90 minutes — and you’ll find most of these in travel listacles that pop up around the holidays. Knowing that Peter, as a long-time listener, has heard these before, I tried to think about some next-level “strategies”. Here are the ones that came to mind. Not an exhaustive list, but I think a decent start…
  • First, avoid flying in the evenings — Now I break this rule all the time, but think about it. Delays build during the day — from weather, congestion, mechanicals, psychotic passengers — because the airlines don’t build their schedules with enough slack to allow recovery. By 4 or 5pm, the sum of these delays combines with the packed evening “rush hour” schedule to drive a high probability of delays. American and United’s LGA-ORD evening schedules are this in spades. Throw in a summer thunderstorm in ORD or DFW or ATL and flight ops centers start cancelling flights to catch up. If you’re on the last flight out, you can be looking at a night on the comfy-looking airport couch. Even without cancellations, delays lead to tight connections which can lead to missed luggage.
  • Use flight-tracking smart phone apps — I use apps like FlightAware to access more data than the typical gate agent can. On the Thursday that I ended up in DC, as the delay notices started coming in from American,, FlightAware showed me that my plane was on the ground in Wichita, KS, probably waiting out an ORD ground stop from thunderstorms. It still had to get to Chicago and then out to Charlottesville. Seeing parallel lines of red on the radar view, I had a pretty good sense that it wasn’t going to happen. When I decided to head up to Dulles for the Frontier flight, I could see the flight history on FlightAware; it delayed more often than not, but rarely cancelled. That night, as ORD and IAD ground stops kept pushing the departure time, I wasn’t too worried that it would cancel because I had seen the flight history.
  • Spread clothes across checked and unchecked luggage — If you’ve checked luggage, I assume it’s for a good reason (e.g., carrying a bottles of wine home from a Napa trip, needing formal wear for a wedding) and that you also have a carry-on. Put two changes of clothes and a bare set of toiletries (e.g., toothbrush) in your carry-on. Most lost luggage will catch up to you within 24-36 hours. If you’re traveling as a family, spread everyone’s clothes out across all the bags rather than each person having their own bag. It would be rare for the airlines to lose all the bags of an entire party. With things spread across bags, everyone is good for a couple of days even if a bag is lost. I’m always amazed that more families don’t do this.
  • Know your geography — What are your alternative airports and how far of a drive are they? This has become even more important over the past few years as the big carriers have reduced flight frequency to fill up their planes. I once had a project in the middle of Connecticut that was just about equidistant between White Plains and Hartford airports. We always flew in/out of White Plains even though it was a smaller airport because, when flights delayed/cancelled, we could just keep driving down the Hutchinson to LaGuardia. When we flew out of Hartford, it was a much longer haul to the nearest airport.
  • This last one might be a bit obscure, but it’s been useful to me. If your corporate car rental agency is Hertz, always book an intermediate car so you can use Gold Choice to quickly swap cars if Hertz assigns you a real beater. Now, you can always go back to the counter, stand in line, and demand a better, cleaner, less decrepit car, but we’re trying to avoid delays. Most corporate rates that I’ve used has at most a dollar or two difference between the compact and intermediate rate. It’s cheap insurance. I’ve used Gold Choice maybe 10-20% of the time, but I’m always glad to have that option.
  • So there you go,. Five ways to travel smarter. If you have a suggestion, please send it in.
  • Bridge Music — Goa Life by Ambient Teknology

Coping with Travel Delays

  • During my last CIO gig, I was traveling as much, if not more, than any of my consulting gigs. I kept my Chicago residence and rotated weekly across offices in Scottsdale, Dallas, Naples, FL and Croydon, south of London. The head of my project management team started doing a bit of travel to support some system migrations and after a couple of months of the usual flight delays and other travel snafus, he asked me, “How do you deal with this all the time?” “I depend on 3 major food groups,” I told him. “Alcohol, salt, and fat.”
  • I remembered that as I was killing time in Dulles with a dinner of fish and chips and a local beer, Hop Lips IPA from Dover, DE. It rang the bell on all three.
  • Doing that too much, though, is how you end up quietly asking for belt extenders, so you gotta find other ways of coping.
  • One bad habit that I have is bitch tweeting. I’ve confessed to that in many prior episodes, and as much as I try to stop, I find it releases my frustrations — kinda like shouting into a bag or something — and keeps me from popping a cork at innocent gate agents. I apologize to all my Twitter followers who have to endure that. I have downloaded a meditation app for my iPhone, but it hasn’t seemed to help.
  • A more constructive thing is that I try not to show up to the airport until I have to. If I get an early notice of a delay, I push back my cab to the airport. Part of the frustration is that delays consume time. I can be more productive in my office than trying to find a place to work at a crowded gate or airport club. When I was traveling regularly to New Orleans a few years back, it seemed that half the flights back to Chicago in the summer were delayed by afternoon thunderstorms. I wouldn’t leave for the airport until I saw the inbound equipment was in the air. I got a lot more work done, and ate much better food.
  • The trend of airports upgrading their amenities helps a lot. I’ve never done the neck massage thing, but, back to the alcohol food group, I’ve done a few wine flights at the Vino Volo wine bars that are popping up in more US airports, and the beer flights at microbrewery bars like Great Lakes Brewery’s place in Cleveland, Cisco Brewers’ bar in Boston Logan or the Karl Strauss bar in LAX. It’s something local that keeps you occupied for a bit. And searching them out — because they’re inevitably in a different concourse than you — also kills time.
  • In the end, though, it is what it is. If the delay isn’t causing you to miss something important, it’s easy to kick back and read the paper. If you’re missing your kid’s parent-teacher conference, there’s not much that’s going to help your frustration. Except maybe bitch tweeting…

Closing

  • Closing music — iTunes link to Pictures of You by Evangeline
  • OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #123
  • I hope you all enjoyed this podcast and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
  • If you have a story, thought, comment, gripe – the voice of the traveler — send ‘em along, text or audio file, to comments@travelcommons.com or to @mpeacock on Twitter, or post them on our website at travelcommons.com. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to send in e-mails, Tweets and post comments on the website
  • Bridge music from Magnatune
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