An Aviation Expert Advises On How To Avoid Travel Chaos During The Holidays

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Anyone who flew during the summer and experienced the delays, cancellations, lost luggage and general misery of trying to fly from one place to another is undoubtably wary of what may happen to them during the upcoming holiday season. With that in mind, Tomasz Pawliszyn, CEO of the passenger rights company AirHelp has advice on how to minimize the pitfalls and what to do if they happen anyway.

For obvious reasons, more disruptions happen at airports that are major transit points due to the increased flow of traffic. Last summer, London’s Heathrow and Amsterdam’s Schiphol airports were the poster children of travel misery due to flight cancellations, but Norway’s Oslo Gardermoen Airport and Bergen Airport and Germany’s Cologne/Bonn Airport, Frankfurt International Airport and Hamburg Airport didn’t fare too well either and could be trouble spots again. In the U.S., LaGuardia, despite its spiffy new terminals, led the pack in cancellations followed by Newark Liberty International Airport, Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Pittsburgh International Airport, Boston Logan International Airport, Charlotte Douglas International Airport, Philadelphia International Airport, Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, Miami International Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport. The airlines serving them have made improvements in the months since, but these airports still have the potential to see disruptions.

For the best chance of flying out on time, Pawliszyn stresses an often suggested tip of taking the first flight of the day before the domino effect of delays through the late morning and afternoon can pile up. (Anyone who has been #32 for takeoff on a Friday night at JFK can attest to that.) Anyone flying on a traditionally problematic day, the Sunday after Thanksgiving, should also be prepared for the issues that could arise.

Now, if your flight is canceled or overbooked: “It’s important to make sure that you understand your rights,” according to Pawliszyn. “And those can depend on your location and airline. Under European law EC 261, travelers are eligible for up to $700 per person in compensation from the airlines for avoidable flight disruptions including delays over three hours, cancellations, or denied boarding due to overbooking. Because it’s a European law, only flights that departed from the EU or are on an EU carrier are covered. In these instances, travelers can claim compensation for up to 3 years after the incident. Many Americans don’t realize that they are protected by European laws in the case of disruptions on international soil- in addition to compensation, you should be reimbursed by the airline for your flight. For overbooking, though, if you accept a voucher from an airline, you forfeit your right to compensation.”

In the U.S., the rules are different and aren’t as generous as they are in Europe. Airlines will refund the flight if it is canceled or significantly delayed and the passenger chooses not to travel but there isn’t additional compensation. There is compensation if the flight is oversold and the passenger is involuntarily bumped as long as the passenger has a confirmed reservation, checked in and arrived at the gate on time and the airline can’t reschedule arrival within an hour of the original flight. If the delay is one to two hours on domestic flights and one to four hours on international flights, the passenger is entitled to double the one way cost of the flight from which they were bumped but airlines can limit the amount to $775. If there is over a two hour delay domestically and four hour delay internationally, the passenger is entitled to four times the one way fare but airlines can limit the amount to $1,550. If the airline offers a voucher instead, though, and the passenger accepts, no other compensation is required.

With luggage, not everyone can do carryon, but the images of airport halls filled with mounds of misdirected luggage last summer scared many passengers into trying. The situation has improved somewhat but crowds descending upon airports during the holidays could force the issue again. More people are using Apple AirTags to keep track of their luggage and airlines such as Delta will issue advisories on their app about when a passenger’s bag is loaded on the plane and its luggage belt location upon arrival. But hang onto those luggage receipts anyway and take a photo of your bag before you leave in case someone has to dig through a pile to find it.

If you arrive but your bag doesn’t, passengers have two laws protecting them: a national law for domestic flights and the Montreal convention internationally. Airlines can have different rules for the time period in which the bag is declared officially lost (usually between five and 14 days but not always) and what is excluded from compensation (usually jewelry and electronics which should never be placed in a checked bag anyway.) Pawliszyn suggests keeping a list of everything in the bag in case passengers have to haggle with the airline over compensation and also keeping receipts for anything they had to buy while the bag was being searched. Since airlines will attempt to keep the amount of compensation down, it’s one of the areas, he explains, in which AirHelp can negotiate. Under U.S. law, though, the maximum compensation is $3,800 and under the Montreal convention, the amount is $1,780. Damaged luggage claims must be filed within seven days and lost or delayed luggage within 21 days.

One area that can’t be negotiated but always causes problems in winter traveling is the weather which might be particularly troublesome this year if The Farmer’s Almanac is correct in predicting an unusually cold, snowy winter. Make sure to check the forecast for the day of the flight.

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