Last weekend saw some awful weather in Dallas. I was on trip to visit family in Abilene, TX, and it was probably the worst position to be in. A large thunderstorm sat between these two cities for a few days without moving. Although we made it there alright and Abilene wasn’t much affected, the regional jet flew just 20 miles south, treating us to an awesome view of continuous lighting strikes. The next evening we went out on the front porch to watch the clouds flash in the distance. And on Sunday the storm was still there, by that time creating hundreds of delays and cancellations.
I’ve written about dealing with cancelled flights before. But this time there was a connection involved and an airport full of frustrated passengers. I told Megan that, just like a shark, we had to keep moving to survive. The entire city had sold out of hotel rooms months in advance for college graduation ceremonies. Planes were already full. This would be a difficult mess to recover from.
Track the Inbound Flight
I knew things would be bad well before our flight was cancelled. The American Airlines app said “on time,” but I got a different story when I tracked the same itinerary on FlightAware. I’m a big fan of using the link for “track inbound flight” to see the progress of my plane. I’ll often track that inbound flight, too. My goal is to see where my plane is right now, not some estimate of where it will be six hours from now.
So many airlines, not just American, will claim a flight is on time when in fact the plane hasn’t even started making its way there. While it’s true that the airline could substitute a different plane, especially at a hub, it doesn’t always happen. And when weather is affecting a major airport there may not be another plane to spare (or it may not help). In my case, our plane had a three hour delay from Knoxville to Dallas, surrounded by streaks of red on the Doppler. After that, it had to fly to Abilene, pick us up, and turn around. Not gonna happen.
The first flights to get sacked are often regional jets. There aren’t as many people on them, they have more trouble in bad weather, and they’re operated by third parties whose performance doesn’t reflect on the big carriers. I figured if I could get to Dallas, things would be better. My flight from to Seattle was still on time, and there were three more scheduled after it.
So I rented a car and drove. It was $150 including gas but in the grand scheme of things I knew that I would improve my chances of getting home sooner. Even if my flight to Seattle got cancelled, I would at least have alternate routings available — I just needed to get anywhere and then find my way to Seattle. In Abilene, my only option was to fly to Dallas.
Keep Planning Ahead
But before I could drive to Dallas I needed permission. You don’t want to just disappear without telling the airline what you’re doing. When you don’t show up for your flight, an airline will typically cancel the entire ticket. Instead, I got on the phone with American Airlines to tell them my plan. (A few people on our flight also drove to Dallas but without telling anyone and had trouble getting on the standby list.)
Unfortunately the hold time was over two hours, even calling the Executive Platinum line. The Twitter team was able to take care of it in just 20 minutes and confirmed I still planned to make it to my original departure to Seattle. With that, I booked a rental on Hotwire and got my in-laws to drive us to the airport. I knew there would be a line of stranded people at the airport planning something similar.
That reservation actually gave me some bargaining power, and most people will tell you I hate negotiating. Everyone else in line took the cheapest car available. By the time I arrived the agent tried to give me a “free” upgrade to an SUV. Great… a car that will use twice as much gas on the three-hour drive. But I was friendly enough and pointed out that he didn’t have the car I reserved. I was able to get a 20% discount, and after the addition of insurance it still came out lower than my original quote.
Prepare for the Long Haul
In retrospect I should have driven to Austin. My Seattle flight hadn’t been cancelled yet, so I figured I still had a good chance of making it. Ultimately, the Seattle flight was cancelled half-way there, and we were rebooked on the next available flight …two days later. All the earlier cancellations that weekend had built up a long queue of stranded passengers.
But I had already checked award availability at the Grand Hyatt DFW before we left Abilene, and I knew my wife had a free night thanks to the $75 annual fee on her Hyatt Visa. We save those annual free night awards expressly for situations like these. I had already written down the information so Megan could call while I kept driving. There was a huge line at check-in that only got longer as the evening progressed. No surprise that regular rates started at $280 before tax.
Get Rebooked …and Know Your Options
Megan was also able to chat with the Twitter team on our drive and get us rebooked on another American Airlines flight. There was no point waiting in the three-hour line to speak to an agent that night, but we got up the next morning — at a hotel conveniently located inside the American Airlines terminal — to wait in a much shorter line and ask about alternate routings. Still nothing.
Standby is the surest way of getting home sooner, especially if you have elite status. I was #1 on the list thanks to being an Executive Platinum member. And even without confirmed tickets, gate passes from the ticket agent enabled us to check out of the hotel and clear security. There I had a rude awakening: while Megan shares my position in the upgrade queue, it doesn’t help at all for standby. She was #23.
Gate agents will sometimes clear companions anyway, but not today when so many frustrated people were waiting around (me included, though it turned out one passenger lower on the list was actually a crew member who was cleared to fly in the jump seat). I gave up my seat since a man who leaves his wife behind probably will not stay married for long.
During this time I was using the “alternate flights” feature of my TripIt Pro subscription as well as checking for any availability on ExpertFlyer. If you explore enough options you just might find a route the agent didn’t consider. I failed this time; availability was changing so rapidly that nothing I found worked. But fortunately the agent was still able to work some magic, finding us an alternate routing via Las Vegas to get us home — together — later that night. Because we were rebooked in Y and we both have elite status on Alaska, I was even able to secure complimentary upgrades!
Don’t Rest on Your Laurels
I was pretty darn satisfied with that result. My wife had advanced from #23 on standby to a confirmed flight. We’d get home a day earlier with bonus miles and a first class seat. All we needed to do was relax in the Centurion Lounge for the day. I had lunch while Megan reserved the meeting room for a conference call. It was Monday, so we both stayed busy with work.
But by mid-afternoon I told her to get up and head to the gate with me. We were still on standby for the next non-stop to Seattle. Wouldn’t you rather fly coach and get home six hours earlier? At this point, the answer was “yes.”
The agents weren’t sure we would show up at the gate after seeing Las Vegas in our itinerary. (The reservation was a mess. I learned during the day that telling people we drove from Abilene got a lot of sympathy). Still, they held our place in line. We were lucky. Several seats were open on this flight, and Megan had already advanced to #18 on the standby list. It was tense as names cleared one-by-one. But the agent yelled “Mackenzies, get over here!” as the door started to close. She never even scanned our boarding passes.
We were in the very last row, next to a grouchy woman complaining about how she didn’t get a first class seat, but we were heading home a lot earlier than we expected.