Furloughs of air traffic controllers because of U.S. government spending cuts are leading to flight delays and cancellations.
The Federal Aviation Agency logged 1,200 delays related to the sequester on Monday and 1,025 on Tuesday - in addition to 1,400 and 975 delays for other more usual reasons such as bad weather or aircraft maintenance problems on those days.
Independent tracker FlightStats.com found higher numbers - 404 flights cancelled on Monday with 7,027 delays, and 385 flights cancelled on Tuesday with 6,396 delays, said Sarena Regazzoni, director of corporate communications at FlightStats.com. In addition, she calculated 402 cancelled flights on Wednesday, and 6,865 delays.
Because the sequestration process triggered automatic 10 percent budget cuts across federal agencies, the FAA has to trim $637 million. It expects to put up to 47,000 employees on furlough, a process that could run through September.
The results so far have created major problems for air travellers. As soon as one major airport experiences significant delays it can have a knock-on impact across the system.
What can you do to try to avoid take-off trouble? Here are some answers from experts for your most pressing questions.
Q: Are any cities better to travel in and out of than others?
A: So far, New York City metropolitan area airports (La Guardia, Newark International and JFK International) are by far the worst, said Jason Cochran, editor-in-chief of Frommers.com. At these three busy airports, which run nearly at capacity, flights are constant and any staffing cuts make a huge impact.
Any airport that is a hub for a major airline - like Chicago’s O’Hare, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson and Dallas’ DFW - is more likely to be adversely affected Cochran said, especially if there’s a compounding weather problem.
He suggests flying from secondary airport to secondary airport - such as flying Southwest Airlines Co from Dallas’ Love field to Islip, Long Island - even if it means some inconvenience in getting to and from the airports.
That, of course, is a strategy for travel not already booked, since some airlines aren’t making it easy for passengers to change flights in advance without paying big rebooking fees.
Delta, for instance, typically charges $150 to change a ticket, while United and USAir raised such fees to $200 even as the furloughs went into effect.
Q: Are any days or times better to fly?
A: On Tuesday, Jason Rabinowitz, co-editor of NYCaviation.com, a site that tracks airport delays, flew from New York to Seattle. He got right out on a 7:40 a.m. flight. Rabinowitz is a big supporter of flying early, before weather and stacked-up delays can have a huge impact.
Sundays seem to be the best days to travel to avoid sequestration delays, because congestion is at its lowest point in the week.
That rule of thumb, however, does not apply to New York and Los Angeles, because business travelers often fly to those locations on Sundays to be in place for the start of the week. Cochran suggests mid-week as another good time to fly to those cities.
Q: How do I find out what’s going on?
A: The best source for up-to-the-minute flight details if you are already en route is your airline carrier, either via the web or a smartphone app. Airports also maintain apps and websites for travelers.
If you are monitoring the situation in general, you can check the FAA’s map or keep track of many twitter feeds that track flight statuses.
Q: My flight was cancelled, how do I handle rebooking?
A: Grab your phone and call the airline reservations center first - even if you are already at the airport, said Tim Winship, publisher of FrequentFlier.com, a travel website. “It’s going to be a lot quicker typically to get someone on the phone than wait your turn in line.”
Some airlines will allow you to rebook onto another airline, but they are not required to, said Chris Lopinto, president and co-founder of ExpertFlyer.com.
You may also be able to get a flight to another local destination if you let the airline know, said Seth Kaplan, owner of Airline Weekly, a trade publication. For instance, if you are flying to New York, you could switch to Newark International Airport instead of LaGuardia Airport.
Q: Should I get travel insurance if I have a trip soon?
A: Air travel experts are mixed about the benefits of travel insurance, since it comes in many different iterations and not every policy will cover flight problems.
Policies featuring “cancel for any reason” coverage could help, said John Clifford, president of International Travel Management in San Diego, California. The policy, which typically costs 10 percent or more of the cost of the trip, should reimburse you for the money spent on flights, hotels, and tours, but won’t help with getting you to your destination.
More general type trip insurance may cover interruptions, “but you should read your policy,” advised Christopher Elliott, consumer advocate and ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. “You’ll need to make a claim for a covered reason, and a flight delay due to a staffing shortage may not be covered,” he said.
Q: Will I have fewer headaches if I fly business class?
A: Even if there’s nothing in writing that suggests you will be treated better, several frequent travel experts say the front of the plane offers an edge.
“Business class passengers generally get treated better and there’s often more business class space available than coach during irregular operations, so that would generally give more options,” said Brian Kelly, founder of the travel site ThePointsGuy.com. You can always bump down to coach if that’s all that’s available, but try to get the difference refunded, he said.
While you might get a boost from flying business class, you’ll get the biggest edge by purchasing an unrestricted ticket. Those tickets are the most expensive - an unrestricted round trip flight from Dallas to Chicago’s O’Hare on United was quoted as $923, while the same ticket would be $308 with restrictions - but they also can be switched to any other airline - providing maximum flexibility.
Q: Should I just take the train?
A: Amtrak, the U.S. passenger rail service, is not planning to add additional trains. Along the Northeast Corridor - it’s most popular and profitable route - Amtrak is already operating at full capacity, said Amtrak spokesman Cliff Cole.
There are 1,862 commuter trains on the Northeast Corridor with an average weekday ridership of 722,900. “Most trains are either almost sold out or fully sold out,” Cole says.
His advice to travellers seeking alternative methods to flying: Book early. “The pricing is based on availability,” he says.