Predicting flight delays and cancellations

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…

DOT should ban fictitious flights

Did you know that hundreds of fictitious flights inhabit airline schedules every day? They don’t exist in real life — just on paper. They are meant to make more money for the airlines by tricking customers and perverting a practice that was actually started to help travelers. In fact, they spell nothing but trouble for passengers.

Those fictitious flights are labeled “direct” by the airlines, which years ago decided to rewrite the dictionary and use that term for flights that weren’t nonstop but made at least one stop on the way to their destination. First, those flights were operated by the same aircraft, but later a “plane change” was introduced. The Department of Transportation has allowed the airlines to abuse the practice any way they like…

Flight schedule changes overwhelm agents, travelers

Have you been surprised to discover that your flight itinerary has little to do with your originally booked routing or departure and arrival times? Did you accept the changes, even though you didn’t like them? Next time, you could probably do better.

Schedule changes — those made by airline planning departments in advance, not those resulting from irregular operations — have always existed in the industry, but they used to be relatively rare and caused few major disruptions. In recent years, however, they have become so common that I’m actually surprised when a week passes without changes in any of my future trips…

Who gets first meal choice on board?

Meal choices in first and business class are hardly a concern for most air travelers, who have much more basic things to worry about these days, such as never-ending extra fees. Still, premium fliers are essential for an airline’s well-being, and they have certain expectations from the product they pay for.

It’s true that many passengers end up in the front cabins — especially on domestic U.S. flights — thanks to free upgrades, but they get them because of their loyalty to the respective carrier. Of course, there are also people who pay to sit up front — as few as they may be — so those cabins deserve serious attention…

When ‘open skies’ aren’t really open

Having covered American diplomacy for a decade now, I’ve received many “diplomatic” answers to my questions — but none more so than “Yes, but not really.” I was reminded of it by the recently negotiated Open Skies aviation agreement between the United States and Japan.

The idea of the Open Skies accords, which Washington has with more than 90 countries, was to liberalize air travel between the signatories, allowing flights from any city in the first country to any city in the second without the previously imposed government restrictions. However, the deal reached with Japan in December has one glaring exception…

Western carriers return to Iraq

Iraq may not be among Western travelers’ most desired destinations quite yet, but some of the world’s leading airlines have decided that flying to the war-ravaged country can be profitable, so they are returning there after a 20-year absence.

Although two of Europe’s major carriers — Austrian Airlines and Turkish Airlines — have been serving Iraq since 2008, their re-entry in that market was viewed as only moderately significant at the time, and none of their peers followed suit. Austrian chose Erbil, the capital of Kurdish northern Iraq, which was never nearly as violent as the rest of the country…

Customers gain sway over airlines

If you thought complaints about a policy of your preferred airline would fall on deaf ears, last week proved you wrong. As travel companies struggle to survive the economic crisis, they are increasingly listening to their most loyal customers.

As I reported in this column, United Airlines announced last month that it soon would end advance domestic upgrades, which could be confirmed using electronic certificates top elite travelers get if they fly at least 10,000 miles per quarter. Though United tried to mask that huge loss for its best customers with the promise of automatic “free upgrades” if space in first or business class is still available a couple of days before a flight, the outcry against the new policy was overwhelming…

United cuts advance domestic upgrades

If you’ve become accustomed to upgrading your domestic flights on United Airlines months in advance, the party will soon be over. The carrier is abandoning its current system of so-called confirmed upgrades in favor of the last-minute upgrades that are more popular in the U.S. industry.

United announced the change last week, although it’s not planning to implement it until spring. The current system apparently was confusing for some passengers, although I prefer to call it sophisticated and not at all difficult to master if you are a semi-frequent flier. However, that’s not why United is making the change. Rather, in trying to maximize revenue from selling first-class seats for cash, it will keep more of those seats open until just before departure…

Keeping track of your trips

How many miles have you flown over the years and how many hours have you spent in the air? What is your most-traveled route? How many times have you circled the Earth or flown the distance to the moon?

Flying today may not be as much fun as it used to be, but many travelers still find it fun to keep track of their flight history. Having such a log can also be practical, in case you need to remember when you were in a certain country, for example. For years, my main frequent-flier account was my only reference to past trips. Airline alliances make it possible to post flights on several carriers to the same account, and being loyal to one alliance pays off in terms of achieving elite status…

Award blocks still irk United fliers

There is rarely a single specific issue a reporter writes about that provokes huge interest from its first mention, and then continues to do so for months on end. For loyal customers of United Airlines, however, the carrier’s blocking of “award” seats made available by its partners in the global Star Alliance is not just any issue.

That was evident as soon as this column exposed the previously secret practice in September, as hundreds of members of United’s frequent-flier program, Mileage Plus, complained either to me or the airline. Although I haven’t dedicated a column to the issue since early December, I continue to receive e-mail messages about it. I also try to answer some questions in a thread on FlyerTalk…