How elite status saved me during the FAA fiasco

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    Unless you’ve been offline for the past week, you’ve probably heard about the Federal Aviation Administration’s temporary suspension of all air travel.

    As a West Coast-based aviator with plans to travel within the state, I woke up last Wednesday morning to news of widespread flight cancellations and delays. My departure was supposed to be an hour late, but my flight back later in the afternoon would probably be fine, right? Not correct. Let us talk about it.

    What happened to the FAA?

    An overnight failure of the FAA’s Notam (Notice to Air Mission) system forced a ground stop of all aircraft until 8:15 a.m. Wednesday, January 11. And as operations gradually resumed throughout the day, there have been waves of cancellations and flight delays spread across the country.

    According to flight-tracking company FlightAware, as of Jan. 11, as of 8:30 p.m. EST, more than 10,000 US flights were delayed, while nearly 1,200 were canceled.

    Preliminary reports say this was all due to a corrupted database file, the FAA says, but what exactly did the thousands of people stranded on the ground look like? I was one of them, so let me tell you.

    The airport was in chaos

    My original 10:15 departure was delayed an hour this morning, and I received no word of my 3:15 return flight – until I sat on the tarmac for my outbound flight and waited to taxi. The problem? I had to be back in time to celebrate my birthday over dinner with my family.

    When I finally got to San Francisco, the airport was a mess, with people rushing back and forth as gates changed, crews left, and flights were postponed.

    How elite status saved the day

    Since my original itinerary would mean missing dinner due to delays from the FAA outage, I spent my entire 90-minute flight north trying to find a workaround with the onboard WiFi. A quick scan of Google Flights showed that there was a United Airlines flight that would get me home on time.

    The only problem? The flight’s original departure time of 1:07 p.m. had already passed, making it impossible to purchase a ticket. But like so many other flights across the country, this one was an hour late (at 2:20pm), so I knew it hadn’t taken off yet.

    A United news agent couldn’t help me, so I bought a ticket for an even later flight that evening and tried to change it myself to the 2:20pm flight. No dice. When I ended up in San Francisco instead, I called right away Premier 1K line and sprinted to the United gate of this unflighted flight.

    You see, top tier United Elite Members have exclusive access to their own phone line. Instead of waiting in line or trying to find a customer service representative at the airport, Premier 1K members are immediately put through to a representative who can assist them.

    Although the other avenues I had followed to change the flight – such as United’s messaging rep – did not allow me to change my later flight to the 2:20pm option, the Premier 1K phone agent was able to do so .

    I ended up spending six hours at the San Francisco airport because the 2:20pm flight kept getting delayed. In the end I was able to visit the AmEx Centurion Lounge as I was still waiting to board.

    Each time my flight was further delayed, I called the 1K counter multiple times. United Premier members can make flight changes free of charge within 24 hours of departure, so I would ask to be rebooked on a new flight without fear of paying more. Unfortunately, these new flights were also delayed or cancelled.

    It was only after another flight was canceled that I chose the 1K line to make a final adjustment. Coincidentally, I was put back on the first United flight I had booked to depart at 2:20pm – even though it was already on board. In general, you are not allowed to book a flight that is already on board, but the 1K phone agent was able to make this possible and it would not have been possible without my elite status.

    I missed my dinner and arrived five hours late, but at least I made it home that evening.

    What to do if your flights are canceled or delayed?

    They may not have top elite status, but there are still ways to smooth your way if your flight schedules are disrupted.

    • Avoid busy gate agents for flight changes. Instead, pick up the phone as you make your way to an airport customer service center. These tend to be less busy, and opting for both at the same time doubles your chances of getting help.

    • know your rights Most airlines also have agreements that put you on another airline’s flights in the event of certain delays or cancellations. The Transportation Department’s handy Airline Customer Service Dashboard lists these “Controllable Cancellation Obligations” for easy reference. If you have to go somewhere and your original itinerary doesn’t work out, don’t be afraid to ask for another flight.

    Here’s what you can expect from various airlines for a «manageable cancellation» under the DOT.

    Rebooking with a partner airline or another airline with which it has an agreement, without additional costs

    Meal or cash/meal voucher if the cancellation causes the passenger to wait 3 or more hours for a new flight

    Complimentary ground transportation to and from the hotel for all passengers affected by an overnight cancellation

    Flight delays are not the end of the world

    It’s never nice when your travel plans get interrupted. But when you have elite airline status, you come first when it comes to accommodations. At least you can skip the line when it comes to contacting an agent.

    Otherwise, go to your airline’s customer service center while you’re on hold – and have the DOT’s dashboard ready.

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