How to Get a Flight During Delays and Cancellations

When weather or other problems gum up the works, chaos can rule.

ByRICK SEANEY, CEO of <a href="http://www.farecompare.com/" target="_blank" >FareCompare</a>
December 07, 2014, 6:17 AM
PHOTO: Aside from a few empty seats scattered on red-eyes and other unpopular times to fly, most planes are jammed.
Aside from a few empty seats scattered on red-eyes and other unpopular times to fly, most planes are jammed.
Martin Harvey/Getty Images

&#151; -- This is the era of the Big Squeeze. If you fly, you know what I mean: No more empty seats.

OK, there are a few, but very few. U.S. airlines flew at a record-breaking 86 percent capacity in August, according to the most recent load-factor figures.

The few empty seats are scattered on red-eyes and other unpopular times to fly. Most planes are jammed.

So when delays and cancelations occur as happened at Thanksgiving, old solutions no longer work. Airlines used to shove folks onto the next available flight, which might be 20 minutes later; today's next available flight might be 20 hours later, or a full day or two. When weather or other problems gum up the works, chaos can rule.

But not always. The next time you hear a gate agent say, "We are sorry to report that…," there are things you can do. But you must be quickly!

1. Don't just sit there.

If you're in the airport, join the queue for the gate agent. If the line goes on forever, consider paying for a day pass to the airline's VIP club or lounge (usually $40 to $50) to get quicker and perhaps more personalized attention from airline reps stationed in the lounge.

2. Use your electronics.

Two things to do while waiting in line.

Call the airline. A phone call may be answered before you reach the gate agent and being first for any available seat is what it's all about. You might want to try Twitter first; many airlines monitor this social media very carefully and respond to tweets quickly.

Search for backup flights online: When you finally reach an agent, be ready to suggest alternative flights that could work for you. This will save the rep precious time, which will only help you. Be sure your backup list includes your airline's competitors; in a situation like this, you want the next available plane no matter whose logo is on the tail.

3. Fly from another airport

This will only work if you're stuck in a city with multiple airports like Los Angeles (LAX, Burbank, Long Beach), Chicago (Midway, O'Hare), Dallas (DFW, Love Field), New York (JFK, LaGuardia, Newark) and so on. If your airline can't get you out of one airport, it may be able to fly you out of another. Some neighbor airports have shuttles between them, or you can grab a cab or rent a car. If you do get behind the wheel, be sure to ask a local how long the drive will take under current conditions; there is no point going to all this trouble only to miss the flight and get stuck in yet another terminal.

4. Fly to another airport.

This will only work if your airport is not completely shut down. Let's say Airport A is open but has no flights to your destination for a day or so. Solution: Fly to Airport B, even if it's far from your final destination, as long as it has plenty of connections flights to your city. Example: You want to go to Dallas but can't get there from New York; consider flying to say, Las Vegas. Your airline rep in New York can tell you if you'll be able to get on a Dallas-bound flight from there.

I've done this and it worked out fine. True, I arrived home later than I wanted to, but it was faster than who stayed in Airport A, waiting for empty seats to open up.

5. Look at ground transport

If you absolutely positively have to be somewhere fast, ground transport may be a last resort, especially if you're not going far and the weather isn't too terrible. Consider hopping on a train or bus, or even renting a car. If you're stuck in New York and need to get to Hartford, it's only about 120 miles or so. Yes, it's a hassle but so is hanging out at the airport for the next 24 hours, or more.

A final tip: Use a carry-on bag and not just to save the $50 bag fee. If you have to run from Gate 3 to Gate 33 because there might be an empty seat on a flight that's about to take off, your carry-on will run with you. Who knows when you'll be reunited with a checked bag.

Opinions expressed by Rick Seaney are his alone and do not reflect the views of ABC News.

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