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A few tips to lighten aggravating airline experiences

Isn’t it fun to sit at the gate at the airport for hours on end wondering if your trip is going to happen? Delayed incoming flights, missed connections-how can you best cope? In this column, I share some tips on resources to get you the information you need to maximize your travel experience.
How much time do you spend at the gloriously renovated Greater Rochester International Airport or at one of its counterparts? The good news is that GRIA is relatively business-friendly; free Wi-Fi and the business center mean that travelers with computers have access to the Web and its travel resources. On the other hand, our weather, and heavy reliance on flights from northeast-based hub airports, makes travel more of a gamble than a sure thing.
If you spend half the time I do in airports or are simply concerned if you will be able to get to your appointments or home with a minimum of interruption, then you need some kind of strategy to be more productive. While I haven’t mastered the system yet, I at least wanted to share some ideas with you and perhaps seek your input on balancing the “traveling trade-offs.”
Trade-off No. 1: Shorter layovers mean shorter trips; shorter layovers mean missing connecting flights when there is a delay.
If you miss a connecting flight when traveling from Rochester, it could mean you have lost the opportunity to be where you need to be the next day. However, no one wants to routinely schedule three-hour layovers, “just in case.” That means you need to be aware of possible delays well in advance of a business-critical trip so you can book a short layover but catch an earlier flight when delays threaten.
The first place you can turn is the Federal Aviation Administration. They maintain a Web site, http://fly.faa.gov, which shows the status of U.S. airports and indicates if taxi or incoming delays or closures for weather or other reasons may impact your scheduled flight. If you take special notice both of the local airport and of airports where your equipment may be coming from (such as O’Hare, Dulles or Atlanta), you can begin to judge if you need to get on an earlier flight or try to alter your flight through another connecting airport completely. Clicking on the Rochester airport-ROC-will let you know both the status of our airport, and delays and problems with potential destinations.
While the FAA tells you about delays now, the folks at AccuWeather.com want to help you better understand forecasted delays. AccuWeather’s flight delay tool provides not only a visualization similar to the FAA’s but also forecasts later problem areas. See http://www.accuweather.com/maps-flight.asp?type=faa to learn more.
A true die-hard may want to get a feel for the airport they are studying by listening in to air traffic control. (If you fly United, you may be familiar with their chatter on Channel 9.) You can have access to many of these stations through the Internet (http://www.liveatc.net/). If you combine access to the ATC chatter with a great view of incoming and outgoing flights (such as Flightaware at http://flightaware.com/live/airport/KROC), you will have a good finger on the pulse of the airport. Flightaware is great for airport activity and tracking planes in flight, but not particularly useful for flights that have not yet taken off. Knowing which sites track flights only in transit and which track schedules is important.
Trade-off No. 2: If there are weather problems, you probably want to get to the airport later, so you don’t sit for hours at the gate; however, if there are delays, you probably want to get to the airport earlier, to take advantage of an earlier flight to your destination.
Now that you are equipped with weather information and how it is impacting flights, it is time to consider your specific flight-and earlier flights. Most carriers will let you sign up for automated alerts that will call, e-mail or page you with information about your flight, including gate information and delays. While I recommend signing up for these services, my experience with them has been mixed; often, the notifications have only arrived after it was too late to act on them. Just last week, Continental was very good at letting me know their best guess about a flight I was ticketed on for the early evening from Tampa to Newark-varying from one to five hours late, depending on the e-mail-starting quite early in the morning, making rescheduling easy. What they failed to tell me, however, was that my connecting flight-and indeed all flights from Newark to Rochester-was cancelled anyway, so it was a moot point.
Our airport makes its arrival and departure board available online at http://www.monroecounty.gov/airport-flights.php. Other sites make similar resources available. However, that resource is only as good as the boards in the airport itself. And I have sat in our airport with flights showing on time, when in fact the airport was completely closed to departures. While tracking my wife’s return from a trip this week, the GRIA Web site showed “on time” and “en route,” while I was on the phone with her learning that mechanical problems had delayed the flight; she was still in the terminal. Only the US Airways Web site had the correct rescheduled information.
Trade-off No. 3: When the departure board says “On time, Gate 7,” how are you supposed to know it is “Delayed and moved to Gate 19”?
How often has the departures board at the airport shown your flight to be “on time” 20 minutes before the scheduled departure time when there was not even an airplane to get onto; the incoming flight had not yet arrived? Normally, that 20-minutes point is when they are asking if anyone needs a little extra time to get on board. Instead, there is often silence, as you began to consider whether 50 minutes was enough layover time to catch your connecting flight.
If the plane you need to board isn’t at the gate 30 minutes before the flight, it is time to do a little checking. A gate agent may be willing and able to tell you what happened to the equipment that made up the incoming flight, or at least tell you what incoming flight is supposed to provide the equipment. Then it’s time to look at arriving flights to see what is supposed to arrive at your gate. Any number of decent Web sites will let you track that flight in the air. A quick list with some distinctive features:
–http:// www.fboweb.com-Offers a world of information about flights when you go in through the free “Quick Track” feature;
–http://www.flightarrivals.com-simple, clean interface;
–http://www.flightstats.com-Very powerful; gives facts like if the airport is de-icing. Access through Google. Just type the airline code and flight number;
–http://travel.flightexplorer.com-Offers planned flight-routing information and 15-day performance history;
–http://www.flightview.com/TravelTools/ViewAirport.asp?airport=ROC-Great when you don’t know the flight number;
–http://www.flytecomm.com/cgi-bin/trackflight-Quick and succinct;
–http://flightaware.com-Great for the big picture; and
–http://www.ifly.com-Offers the nearest alternative airport when something goes wrong.
I mentioned that I haven’t mastered the situation yet. Even with all of the great resources above, tracking when a flight takes off, is in the air and lands is still art, not science. Tracking my wife’s recent flight showed that you could get different answers from all of the sites.
Before taking off, some of the sites do no tracking. The GRIA site showed my wife’s flight would land 30 minutes early. US Airways’ site was the only one that indicated a delay and a 30-minute expected delay on arrival. As it was Air Wisconsin for US Airways, some sites made it very difficult to find the flight while others (e.g., Flightstats) recognized both the US and ZW codes for the airlines.
In the air, the trackers all did reasonably well on position, if not expected arrival.
And on arrival, some systems simply rolled the flight off their listings, while others (such as Flightaware) provided minute-by-minute logs of the flight. Most sites disagreed on the arrival time-perhaps the difference between scheduled, touch-down or making it to the gate.
Air travel is an adventure, if you are going or coming. These tools may help you tame your adventure-at least a little bit.

Eric E. Cohen, CPA, of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, is spending his time reinventing how accounting information is shared, with XBRL.org.

02/29/08 (C) Rochester Business Journal

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