Are you one of those travelers who wait until they get to the airport to find out that their flight has been delayed or canceled? It’s time to become a proactive flier and learn how to predict disruptions, so you can get rebooked before anyone else on your flight, with a minimum impact on your travel plans.
Although there is no guarantee that your prediction success rate will be 100 percent, because airlines often swap aircraft, the method I’ve adopted works most of the time. It’s actually rather simple: I track the planes assigned to my flights by matching arrival and departure gates. Continental Airlines makes it even easier by providing the most advanced data in the industry, but more on that later.
The aircraft for a United Airlines flight I recently took from Washington to San Francisco came from Sao Paulo. Had the flight from Brazil been late, I would have known hours in advance, which would have allowed me to get rebooked on the phone before even leaving home.
You might ask why you need to waste time tracking planes and matching gates, when airlines usually send e-mail and phone alerts in case of delays and cancellations. I find that I’m usually ahead of them, because for some reason their systems often take hours to update.
If I see that United 952 from Washington to Frankfurt is four hours late, I know immediately that the return flight 953 will be delayed, too. But I’ve seen United take hours to reflect that in its system, perhaps hoping that the plane will make time in the air. That can be a valid reason to wait for a final determination, as can be the possibility that another aircraft may be found to replace the delayed one.
So why am I so sure Flight 953 won’t depart on time if Flight 952 is four hours late? There is only one Boeing 767 flying to Frankfurt daily, and it operates both 952 and 953, which leaves no room for aircraft substitution. In addition, the turnaround time for that plane on the ground in Frankfurt is less than two hours, so there is no way the plane will leave Frankfurt on time after arriving from Washington four hours late.
Knowing the type of aircraft assigned to your flight would make the gate-matching exercise much faster, especially at a hub like Washington Dulles or Chicago. To make it even easier, you can use your departing airport’s website, which will display all arriving flights in a certain time frame with their gates on the same page. If you know your flight leaves from Gate 72 in Los Angeles, save yourself time by going to the LAX website, rather than the United site.
Most planes, of course, operate several flights a day, so if I have time, I track my planes since their first voyage in the morning. Yesterday, for example, the Boeing 767 I flew on from LA to Chicago had started the day in LA, flown to Denver and Chicago before returning to LA to pick me up. By the way, the tail number of that plane was N666UA.
What about aircraft replacement? That’s another reason to do your homework. That flight from Washington to San Francisco I mentioned earlier was scheduled to be operated on a Boeing 767 — with a domestic seat configuration, which means two cabins and those utterly unimpressive domestic first-class seats. As soon as I learned my plane was coming from Sao Paulo, I knew there had been a swap to an internationally configured, three-cabin Boeing 777, so I’d sit in a much more comfortable business-class seat. Since the substitution changed seat assignments, I quickly logged in and grabbed my favorite seat in the business cabin.
All major U.S. carriers’ websites show gate information, but Continental beats them all to the punch by displaying much more valuable data — it actually shows the tail number of the specific aircraft assigned to your flight and tells you where it’s coming from, including the inbound flight’s number. For instance, you are flying from Newark to Berlin on Flight 96 today, your Boeing 767′s tail number is N158CO, and it’s coming from Zurich as Flight 79. Right next to that information on the Continental site is a link to the real-time status of that flight.
Continental goes even further, offering descriptions of beverage and meal services for that particular flight, as well as data on in-seat power, entertainment, aircraft features and seat configuration.
This is a great example of a customer-friendly policy, which the merged United should adopt on its website. In fact, all airlines should provide that information — it would certainly make our lives much easier.
- Nicholas Kralev is an author and expert on diplomacy, global affairs and air travel. A former Financial Times and Washington Times correspondent, he has traveled around the world with four U.S. secretaries of state — Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright. He has flown over 2 million miles and visited 83 countries.
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