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…

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…

Should airlines honor fare errors?

Have you ever taken advantage of a suspiciously low airfare — say $300 to Europe in business class — that turned out to be a mistake? Did the airline cancel your ticket or did you fight to keep it? If you gave in, it might have been premature.

Like any human activity, filing fares is prone to errors once in a while — a few times a year at most, which is too much for the airlines, but not enough if you ask bargain-hunting travelers. In the most recent reported example, on Dec. 27, a traveler looking for a ticket stumbled upon a Swiss International Airlines business class fare of $0 plus tax from Toronto to several European cities. It was available on various booking engines, including Swiss’ Web site and Travelocity…

New hopes for rail travel

Have you heard that trains are “in” again? They have been “out” for so long, it’s almost hard to believe it, but President-elect Barack Obama’s decision to ride the rail into Washington for his inauguration has excited many train lovers.

Since flying became the main form of long-distance transportation in the United States in the past couple of decades, repeated warnings by railroad executives and industry advocates that insufficient funding and out-of-date equipment would lead to the system’s collapse seemed to fall on deaf ears. Finally this fall, Congress more than doubled funding for Amtrak, the semi-public company, in a $13 billion railroad improvement bill sponsored by Reps. James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat, and John L. Mica, Florida Republican…