Avoid Being Stranded at the Airport

Travelers all across the country faced a nightmare this week when American Airlines canceled more than 3,000 flights for safety inspections.

While such catastrophic failures of the air travel system can't be predicted, there are a number of steps that travelers can take to increase their odds of getting to their destination instead of spending the night on an airport cot.

First and foremost, remember to be nice.

Airline employees are dealing with a large number of unhappy travelers. The person standing on the other side of the counter from you is not personally responsible for your delay. They do have a lot of power to see if you or that next person on line gets that final empty seat on the next plane out.

There are now federal laws requiring airlines to compensate you for delays or cancellations. Each airline has its own rules and policies that are spelled out in something called the "contract of carriage." Those contracts can be found on all the major airlines' Web sites.

In the end, good planning, timely action on your part, along with the help of a friendly airline agent will increase your odds of getting out of the airport.

What to Know When Planning a Trip

It all starts when booking a flight.

Diane Chulski, vice president of Leisure Travel for Travel Solutions Inc., a travel agency in Grand Rapids, Mich., suggests using a travel agent.

She said that agents have experience with delays, know the options available to you and can often help rebook passengers on the next flight out.

That said, many travelers today like to book their own trips.

Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com and an ABCNEWS.com columnist, said the first mistake consumers make when buying tickets: They put in the home phone number in.

"They should always put their cell phone number in," he said. "Most airlines now have automated systems that will contact you if they know there is going to be a delay or cancellation."

Seaney said that information is key to not being stranded. If 300,000 people have their flight canceled, but you are one of the first 1,000 or so to try and rebook you have a much better chance of reaching your destination.

Chulski also said that passengers should add their frequent flier numbers and any other relevant information to show the airlines that you are a loyal customer.

What about the type of aircraft?

This week's disruptions have some travelers wondering if they should be avoiding the MD-80, which was grounded.

Travel experts say that is a foolhardy mistake. There is no way to tell what aircraft type might have problems a few months down the road.

"That could happen with any aircraft," Chulski said. "It's kind of luck of the draw with what happens."

That said, aircraft choice can make a difference if there is a problem with your particular plane.

"Aircraft like 737s and MD-80s are the workhorse of the fleet. There are more of them. Usually when one fails, they have one in the hangar they can replace it with," Seaney said, adding that airlines also use a lot of Embraer's 50- or 70-seat regional jets and Bombardier's Canadair regional jets. However, those smaller jets sometimes are subject to more weather delays because of their size.

Remember, the smaller the plane, the easier it is to rebook those passengers on new flights. Airlines are flying planes near capacity and airlines are much more able to accommodate 90 stranded passengers than 180.

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