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How to reduce your chances of getting stranded

If you ask two simple questions before you head to the airport, you can significantly reduce your chances of getting stranded,  writes TODAY Travel Editor Peter Greenberg.

With more winter storms hitting airports, the reports are still not great on airline responses to bad weather and stranded passengers. However, in the wake of the most recent storms, some airlines are beginning to try — literally — to get ahead of the turbulence.

It’s called a pre-emptive cancellation. In anticipation of bad weather, and relying on two or three separate meteorological sources, a number of airlines aren’t waiting for  the bad weather to arrive. They are looking at the storm patterns, and their own flight schedules — and aircraft and crew sequencing in particular — and they are canceling selected flights up to five hours in advance of the bad weather.

On one hand, this is actually a smart move by the airlines, because in most cases it preserves what they call the "cycle" — an aircraft and crew’s rotation within a particular airline schedule and system. And by doing that, when the storm passes, neither airplanes nor crews are out of schedule, location or sequence. Result: the airline can get up and running again that much faster.

That’s great news for the airlines. On the other hand, it may not be great news for passengers. Indeed, in most cases it means you won’t be stuck on an airplane on the ground for hours, but it could mean you’re still stranded at airports.

Out of the gate
A solution here? Actually, a very quick and simple one. First, every time you make a reservation, an airline asks for your phone or contact numbers. And most frequent flyers will tell you that on balance, few airlines ever call with useful schedule change information in time to prevent frustration, stress and anguish at the airport. By the time you arrive for a flight you thought was operating on time, it’s been delayed forever, or canceled — and you’re already at the airport with nowhere to go, except, of course to learn how to sleep in the uncomfortable, barely upright position in rigid airport chairs.

So, what’s the real solution? It’s actually all up … to you. It’s about the flow of updated positioning information that you can trigger yourself by asking just the right two questions. If you’re like most travelers, you try to be responsible — at least to yourself — before you head out to the airport. So you call ahead to the airline from your home or office, and you ask a simple question. For example you might say, "I’m on flight 405 from New York to Chicago, leaving this afternoon at 5 p.m. Is the flight on time?"

Simple, direct, and ... dangerous. In most cases, the airline agent on the other end might just interpret your question to mean whether your flight is "scheduled" to leave on time. And the answer, invariably, is YES. This is meaningless, useless information. Of course it’s scheduled to leave … or arrive on time. So was the Titanic!

Two magic questionsInstead, you need to rephrase your question into two questions.

Here goes: "I’m on flight 405 from New York to Chicago today. Could you go to FLIFO on your computer [internal airline jargon for flight/plane information] and tell me the aircraft number assigned to Flight 405?" (This should take the agent about two minutes at most to retrieve the information).

Then, when you get that information — let’s say it’s aircraft 127 — you just have one more question to ask. "Can you tell me the status and location of aircraft number 127?"

If the answer is the plane is in Botswana, then guess what? Unless you’re leaving from an airport where the airline is either based or has a hub, chances are excellent that you’re not going to Chicago this afternoon — at least not when you wanted to go. And the good news at this stage is that you now have options and can make a Plan B, or C or K for that matter, before you ever trudge out to the airport.

Two simple questions, but two necessary ones. Remember, don’t wait for the airlines to call you with schedule changes. Be proactive — call them with those two questions, and while there are never any guarantees when it comes to air travel, your chances of getting stranded have just been reduced dramatically.

Peter Greenberg is TODAY's travel editor. His column appears weekly on