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Fliers can take a few pointers from the East Coast blackout

There are strategies that may get you back on the move when a crisis interrupts air traffic.

August 31, 2003|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

Just when you thought it was safe to fly again, the East Coast power outage of Aug. 14 cast thousands of stranded fliers into a game of "Survivor." Who would get the last available plane seat, rental car or hotel room?

To win this game when a crisis such as a power outage, storm or labor strike interrupts your trip, you need to be persistent and creative. You're on your own; no federal law requires airlines to get you on a flight within a specified time or put you up in a hotel in such a force majeure situation, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Here are some steps you can take:

Don't take no for an answer: When the blackout forced her plane to divert to Newark, N.J., from New York's JFK airport, UCLA graduate student Nakisha Nesmith, on her way home to L.A. from Brazil, missed her connecting flight.

Nesmith said she stood in the airline's "horrific" line for 3 1/2 hours, only to be told there were no flights out; everything was overbooked. When the agent suggested she go to Philadelphia to try to get on a plane, "I kind of lost it," Nesmith said.

After learning that another customer was flying standby on an afternoon flight, Nesmith asked to fly standby too. Undeterred by the agent's warning that 20 people were ahead of her, she waited and got on the flight.

Be nice: It's tempting to take out your anger on airline staff, but polite persistence can be more effective. After all, it wasn't the staff who stirred up the storm clouds or pulled the plug on the electric grid.

"Act more out of sorrow than anger," says David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Assn. lobbying group. "It's refreshing not to be screamed at."

AAA spokesman Justin McNaull adds, "Some sugar can certainly go a long way." Empathizing with the employees' problems can't hurt either.

Rent a car: Even with sometimes steep charges for one-way rentals, going by car may be a good option if you're a few hours' drive from your destination. It can also save you a hotel bill.

McNaull paid about $130 to drive a rental car nine hours from Frankfort, Ky., to Washington, D.C., after storms shut down Baltimore-Washington International Airport on Presidents Day weekend. It was money well spent, he says, because he got home at least a day earlier than he would have by plane. He was able to use his Southwest Airlines ticket later. (Southwest's rebooking policy is normally liberal; other airlines often loosen the rules for nonrefundable tickets when there's a crisis.)

Getting a car may be a problem -- or not. When air travel is interrupted, "there's often quite a run on the cars," says Chris Payne, a spokesman for Thrifty Car Rental.

The shortage was especially acute in New York City when the blackout stalled garage elevators, says Ted Deutsch, spokesman for Cendant Car Rental Group, which runs the Avis and Budget brands. But absent that problem, he adds, supply and demand may balance out when air traffic is disrupted because so many people fail to arrive to pick up their reserved cars.

Take the bus or train: "The bus is the forgotten component in our travel system," McNaull says. That can make it a good choice for stranded air passengers when others crowd car rental and airline counters.

In the East, especially, consider a train. Philadelphia, whose airport was less affected by the blackout, is a short train ride from New York, where airports shut down. (Amtrak restored limited train service south of New York within four hours of the blackout, a spokesman says.)

Head downtown to get a room or a car: Hotels and rental cars at or near the airport are the first to sell out in a crisis. But farther away there may be more available rooms or cars -- if you can get there. The rental car company may even pick you up at the airport. "I've heard of situations in which they've gone a couple of hours away," Payne says. It's worth a try.

Get on the phone: You can check several options by dialing toll-free reservation numbers for airlines, rental car companies and hotels. "Call early and often," Stempler advises. If you can, that is; the power outage disrupted some phone service.

Even if you're steps away from the rental counter at the airport, you may be better off calling the toll-free number first.

"Never just walk up and get a car," Payne advises. "You're going to pay a lot more for it." That's because, like airlines, rental companies typically charge walk-ups higher rates. The difference can be $50 or $60 per day versus $35, Payne says.

Dialing a hotel chain's toll-free number instead of calling a single hotel can save time, allowing you to check room availability in several hotels.

Contact the local convention and visitors bureau for advice. "They have an interest in making your experience a good one," McNaull says, "even if it's the experience of trying to leave."

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