Tips for airline travel amidst COVID, canceled flights and late arrivals/ departures

Dec. 2, 2021
By Jacob van Cleef, Consumer Watchdog Associate

Dealing with airlines can be a hassle. Our report, Not First Class, Flyer Complaints Soar as Airlines Cancel Flights, Deny Refunds, Ruin Plans, about the airline industry and consumer complaints shows that complaints are much higher than prior to the pandemic and some airlines and airports fail to be punctual as others. Especially if you have not flown in a while, it’s a good idea to consider these tips for flying now.

Before you book

  •  When comparing prices, include other fees such as bag fees. SmarterTravel has a good chart to compare the 10 largest U.S.-based airlines and Air Canada.

  • Consider how often passengers complain about an airline. It’s best to avoid airlines that are more likely to cause you problems and not fix them. Our report has details about which airlines have the largest volume of complaints per 100,000 passengers boarded. The Department of Transportation (DOT) releases monthly reports with this information and more.

  • If you can, avoid layovers. Layovers obviously cause the trip to take longer, and additional flights mean more potential for delays or cancelations.

  • Speaking of delays, take into consideration how frequently the airlines fail to arrive on time. Our report lists some standout airlines, both positively and negatively, and the DOT’s reports have data on that as well.

  • If you have to have a layover and you have choices, compare the airports where the layovers would be. Some airports are better than others at getting flights to depart on time. Our report goes into more detail about the 16 busiest airports in the United States, but the DOT’s reports include even more airports.

After you book

  • Wear a mask in the airport and on the plane. That is standard health and safety practice at this point, but some people need to be reminded.

  • Bring a small container of hand sanitizer with you. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) allows one 12-ounce container of hand sanitizer in your carry-on bag. It’s a good way to save money, especially if you plan on flying frequently.

  • Don’t worry about getting on the flight as quickly as possible. The line always becomes a pool of people, so be patient. You should still be able to get your seat, and if you can’t, though it’s rare, that is probably a double-booking issue by the airline. The most recent DOT report shows that fewer than two people out of 1,000 (0.0017 percent of all passengers) were denied boarding involuntarily, meaning they did not volunteer to get bumped. If you're bumped voluntarily or involuntarily, follow the tips for “if there is a problem” if there are issues.
    And you should be able to find overhead bin space close to your seat for your carry-on with no problem. You don’t have to get close to a bunch of people just to get to your seat a little faster.

If there is a problem

  • Problems happen, especially now. Talk to a person at the airport or call customer service to solve the problem. If possible, talk to someone in-person, but that won’t always be possible. Make sure that you keep track of who you talk to, when you talk to them and what gets accomplished in the conversation, so that can be raised in any future conversations.

  • Kindness is key when dealing with customer service. Even though you may wait hours, don’t take your anger and frustration out on a customer service agent. Be nice to the person you’re on the phone with, and they may try to help you more.

  • Don’t give up. You may be offered a substitute for what you want, or less than what you want, but don’t just take what’s offered for as long as you can. Try to annoy the company into giving you what you want, again not the customer service agent.

  • File a complaint with the DOT’s Office of Aviation Consumer Protection. They will do what they can to remedy the situation. They will review the complaint, get a response from the airline and enforce any rules that have been violated. At the very least, your complaint can be logged, so advocates can use that information to push for changes in the industry. Ideally, it won’t be necessary to file a complaint, but more than 3,000 people have filed a complaint every month through August 2021, the most recent month of data.