tips: cancelled flights

One minute, I’m watching “Call the Midwife” downloads on my iPad, and the next I’m sitting in airport jail half-way around the world. I’m sure this happens to most people (right?). But, when it happened to me, I had a few hours on my hands to be introspective. What could I have done differently, and would I do differently in the future?

I was the last in my group for departure from Singapore. We’d had dinner, hugged our good-byes, and piled into cars headed for Changi Airport. This airport is a destination in itself. I think that’s at least one of the reasons why you’re not allowed in your gate’s boarding area until an hour before departure – it keeps you shopping. Nonetheless, I’m always pleased when the departure lounge opens up because it means I’m on-track to head home.

I mean, there are worse airports to be stuck in……

This particular trip, I was flying British Airways because of the single connection option they offered. Mind you, had I chosen United or Singapore Air, they would have had multiple planes in and out – BA had just mine that day. This is something I’ve filed away for future: How many planes does a carrier have arriving/departing from that airport each day? Because when the pilot came out and very calmly and politely explained they needed a new battery for the plane, I knew it was unlikely they’d have one just sitting around. As it turned out, they had to wait for one to arrive the next day…

Be aware of these signs that your departure is VERY delayed:

  • The assigned departure lounge staff goes away
  • The crew’s not arriving, deplanes, or leaves the lounge area
  • The crew looks unhappy, or starts talking with their backs to the awaiting passengers
  • Your on-line flight tracker starts giving you messages about delays that haven’t been posted. Or worse, tells you your flight is cancelled

Tip: download a flight tracker app just so that you have 2 sources for flight information. Even if you’re using your carrier’s app, a second way to verify information is good. I’ve used Flight Tracker and FlightView. I’ve gotten information through these sources before the airlines released/posted info, which can give you a much-needed head start when looking at alternate flights.

As I continued, in relative peace, to watch babies be born (on my iPad), the flight crew came out to address us often. They were friendly and looked like this was a minor delay; no big deal. I personally had a nice long layover in Heathrow before my nonstop home, so maybe I would have to forego my full-english and just eat airplane food for breakfast; no big deal. After a couple of hours, I asked the pilot whether any of the crew was going to time-out soon (as delays start to mount by the hours, you’ll want to look into this, too – changing out crew members can cause substantial delays). Our crew was still good for several more hours, but those started ticking away; becoming a bigger deal. As we approached the end of the window the pilot had given me for the crew timing out, I called my travel agent’s after-hours service. I needed to know if there were alternate flights for me and could any be held….. Immediately thereafter, the pilot came out with the crew in tow, turned their backs to us to speak with the departure gate staff and I knew; this now had become a big deal. I called my agent and asked her to put Plan B into action – I needed a seat on a different carrier.

So, it’s one thing to hold a seat – that’s free. It’s another thing entirely to purchase a last-minute ticket – especially internationally. The ticket I wanted was $5,000. This wasn’t a charge that I was willing to put on my card and sort it out later. I needed my current carrier to re-book (pay) for the change for me.

Tip: Know your resources – (See bottom of post for ideas)

There was, I’ll say, ‘moderate’ chaos in the boarding lounge. Two gentlemen were yelling (screaming) at the gate agents while the rest of us were asked to stand in an orderly line (first come – first serve). This is the part where I need to cue the violins: I had a personal reason to be home on-schedule – my son was about to open as Sir Toby Belch in a highschool play and we’d been running lines for MONTHS. So, I wiggled up to the front of the line (I’m diminutive…short). I calmly slid the confirmation number with the seat my travel agent had held for me to the gate agent; she assured me I’d be helped …in time. She handed back my notes. I smiled and slid them back again saying I understood, but I’d done the legwork – I’d reserved the seats – I just needed her to give me a voucher, or code the ticket to transfer…..just a little compassion (there might have been a few tears from me as I described what was drawing me back home). When she motioned for a colleague to come over, I thought I’d struck a chord and silently marveled at my cunning. However, the colleague was airport police….wrong chord.

This little note is given upon entry as a reminder that they don’t play in Singapore

Have you been to Singapore yet? If not, the first thing everyone seems to know is that they’ll throw you into jail for spitting gum. It’s even on T-shirts there. Everyone says: Don’t spit your gum out! Like that’s the first thing someone would do. But, you take how strict they are about gum, compare it to death to drug traffickers, and you start wondering what the penalty is for being “agitated” at an airport gate agent. Is it somewhere in the middle? Do I need to be thinking about how to find my embassy? I’ll admit, when the ‘charge’ is agitation, I became hyper-alert about being calm (if that’s possible), but my mind was reeling. I didn’t say a word.

Tip: Make sure that all of the numbers you might need to call in an emergency have actual country codes and area codes. US/Canada toll-free numbers cannot be reached from the outside.

In the end, airport jail for me was mostly just airport “time out”. They didn’t tell me anything – just sat me down and walked away. Within a couple hours of the departure time for the flight I’d been hoping to switch to, a representative collected me, told me I’d been rebooked, and escorted me to the departure lounge for my new flight. So, was I on pins and needles? YES Was I pretty certain I was stuck without any official plans for return? YES Did it end well after all? Thankfully, YES (And, I made it home for opening night)

The airlines want their planes to be where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be there, too. But, that’s not always the way things turn out. My advice is to know your options, be proactive, BE PLEASANT, and keep the faith.

Important Travel Resources:

  • Airline Clubs can book/rebook you and they’re much less crowded than customer service; the downside is that they’re very expensive and NOW, most of the carriers only allow you to use them on days you’re flying THEIR planes. This is really for the very most brand-loyal flyers now.
  • Travel Agents – If your agent booked the flight, know how to reach them 24/7 (from anywhere) in case of emergencies. If you change an itinerary with a carrier who warns you that making a change through them will remove your agent’s ability to make future changes, think carefully.
  • International SOS provides medical and travel updates in regions you’re traveling to. It also tracks your whereabouts (if you allow it) and gives you local alerts. I have the app and like it.
  • STEP – Smart Traveler Enrollment Program through the US State Department. Registering with them tells the government where you are in case of a tragic event
  • Your local US Embassy – If you lose your passport, have health problems, marriage, birth, adoption – these are all things your US Embassy can help with. I once got asked at customs how to prove my son was my son…..my phone a friend would’ve been the Embassy.

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