Airline Pilot's Secrets for Surviving Holiday Air Travel

Updated on December 11, 2019
LJ Bonham profile image

L.J. Bonham is a freelance author, novelist, and historian who lives in the Rocky Mountains with assorted critters.

The "Office"
The "Office" | Source

The holiday travel season is the most stressful and difficult time for both passengers and airlines. Delays are common, sometimes epic, tempers short, with little “holiday cheer.” There are several ways to make your travel less harried and more successful. Here are an airline pilot's little secrets for passengers.

1. Expect Delays

The holiday travel season couldn’t occur at a worse time in the year for flying. An obvious relic from before the steam engine, let alone the airplane. The upper mid-west and eastern seaboard are often socked in with blizzards, fog, high winds, and below freezing temperatures. The south-east is lashed by severe thunderstorms, ice storms and tornadoes. In the west, the Rocky Mountains generate heavy snows and fearsome mountain wave turbulence while the pacific coast can see anything from torrential rain, to persistent fog, and even brush fires. All in all, not travel brochure flying weather.

All these environmental factors lead to one inevitable thing: airline schedule delays. The airline’s hub and spoke route system just makes it worse. All it takes is a blizzard in Chicago, tornadoes near Atlanta, heavy fog in San Francisco, severe winds in Denver, or torrential rain in Los Angeles to paralyze an already overburdened system.

Air travelers must accept a simple fact—there is a good probability their anticipated flights will get delayed, even cancelled, for reasons beyond anyone’s control.


2. Have a Backup Plan

Since delays or cancellations are probable, the smart traveler has contingency plans. If your destination is five-hundred miles, or less, away, consider driving instead of flying. When the entire security, boarding, and flight process is considered, driving often takes the same or less time and is more cost effective. If you have a multi-leg flight with at least one lay over, consider driving from the lay over city to your destination.

The best air travel contingency plan is time—give yourself enough extra time. Plan your travel for one or two days prior to, and after, those you will spend at the destination.

Pilot's Eye View: Ready For Takeoff In Very Low Visibility Conditions
Pilot's Eye View: Ready For Takeoff In Very Low Visibility Conditions | Source

3. Patience

Above all, remain patient. Even when it seems the air travel system is out to get you, the truth is many people are working hard behind the scenes to keep it, and you, moving. Airlines operate on thin profit margins and maintain the smallest staff, and fewest aircraft possible. If just a few flights are delayed at one airport, there is no extra capacity and things unravel fast throughout the system.

No matter how bleak the situation looks, remain calm, polite, and patient. Verbally abusing gate agents or flight crews will result in less service and not get you what you want. Remember, interfering with a flight crew aboard an aircraft is a federal offense, you can spend time in federal prison, be fined, and banned from air travel.

San Fran: Socked In Again
San Fran: Socked In Again | Source

4. Resist Super Low Fares

Oh, those mega-low online fares are so attractive, but there is a price beyond the ticket’s face value you might have to pay if things go wrong. Airlines accommodate based on the amount paid for a ticket. The system is not egalitarian, rather a strict hierarchy based on means. If your flight is cancelled and you must be rebooked on a subsequent flight, you are officially a stand-by passenger and are boarded on a space available basis.

If there are fewer available seats than stand-by passengers, boarding is prioritized based on fare price. So, a first class ticket holder is first in line and the one holding the bottom dollar fare is last. That’s the facts, and no pedantic temper tantrums will change it. The cost of a fare which let you sail through the system with the least trouble is forgotten long after the ordeal you had with a low-ball fare.

5. Avoid Short Connections

Hand in hand with low fares are short connections between flights at hub airports. Avoid them whenever possible. If your connection is at these airports: Chicago O’Hare, Atlanta Hartsfield, Denver International, Dallas-Fort Worth, New York Kennedy, Houston International, Los Angeles, San Francisco International, or Seattle-Tacoma, do not accept less than a two hour layover. These airports are enormous. A gate change from one terminal to another can take half an hour or more. If you arrive an hour late, you may only have thirty minutes to spare. Plan for delays, don’t hope for the best.


6. Don’t Fly on Actual Holidays

The airlines and the air traffic control system are based on employee seniority, not merit. The most senior (senior = experienced) pilots, mechanics, and controllers pull rank and get the holidays off. They want to stay home with their families as much as you. This means when you book a flight on Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Years, you are flown by the least experienced crews, in a plane fixed by the least experienced technicians, and separated from other aircraft in the sky by the least experienced controllers. How’s that low holiday fare treatin’ ya, now?


7. Know Your Rights as a Passenger

Airline passengers have rights under federal law and regulations. Visit the U.S. Department of Transportation’s web site for details. Understand your rights and carry a copy when you travel. Note, your rights do not supersede operational safety or security, so understand those rights have limits.

8. What to do if Your Flight is Cancelled

A cancelled flight can ruin a vacation, but there are things you can do to reduce the stress. As stated above, travel a day or two in advance. Time is the most precious commodity in air travel.

If your flight is cancelled, the airline should arrange overnight lodging. However, if the airport you are at is closed for weather, all those other people around you need lodging, too. Most airport areas do not have enough hotel rooms for an airport’s entire population, so how do you improve your odds?

Keep an eye on the flight status boards located throughout the airport. If flights begin to show up as cancelled, prepare for yours as well. You can often get early notice by following your flight on the airline’s web site.

Stay near the gate agent’s podium, so you can get in line quickly if they announce your flight’s cancellation. Treat the gate agent like solid gold; this is the person who will make or break your entire day at this moment. When you get face to face with the agent, you must ask for lodging. Some airlines won’t provide it unless you ask. Once you get your lodging voucher from the agent, check your priority for your new flight.

The exception to this strategy is some airlines do not allow their gate agents to handle the lodging and rebooking. Passengers must either line up at a customer “service” counter or worse yet, stand in line to use a special phone connected to an off-shore customer “service” center. If your flight is delayed, ask the gate agent where the nearest service desk or phone is located, and if possible station a member in your party close by. Remember to stay in touch with them in case your flight resumes operation and boards on short notice. If you’re alone, find a spot to wait in the gate area, but as close to the customer service facility as possible.



Most air travel is uneventful, but the holiday season often proves the exception. Plan ahead, give yourself extra time, avoid tickets priced too good to be true, and don’t fly on actual holidays. Above all, remain calm and polite at all times. If things turn sour, keep in mind an old airline pilot’s witticism: if you have time to spare, travel by air.


One or two hub airports hit with weather means nationwide delays

© 2016 LJ Bonham


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