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The Web can have a calming effect on summer turbulence

June 06, 2004|James Gilden | Special to The Times

It's shaping up to be a stormy summer for air travelers -- and weather is just a part of the forecast.

U.S. airlines expect about 200 million passengers between Memorial and Labor days, according to the Transportation Security Administration, making this one of the busiest summers on record.

Before flying the newly crowded skies, air travelers may want to make a few stops in cyberspace. Although controlling a summer thunderstorm is still beyond the Web's technical reach, travelers can at least be better prepared for what awaits them.

On the Internet, passengers can discover whether they should eat before boarding the plane or take an extra book to pass the time, said Scott Ackerman, Orbitz director of customer care. Besides posting alerts and air traffic maps on its website ( and click on "News & Guides") Orbitz issues automated alerts to customers' wireless devices such as cellphones and personal digital assistants, or it calls the customer. "That message isn't going to get you there quicker, but people want to know what's going on," said Ackerman, who expects to send 10 million alerts to Orbitz customers this summer. "It helps take the mystery out of pushing back from the gate and sitting on the tarmac for an hour and a half."

Orbitz customer Dick Metzler of Pittsburgh became a beneficiary of that approach last August at New Jersey's Newark airport. The major power outage that struck the East Coast and Midwest had left him stranded. He was sitting on a curb at the airport when the Orbitz customer-care team called him to say it had rescheduled him for the first flight out the next day. And then the service booked a room for him at a nearby hotel.

"You just don't usually see proactive service like that," Metzler said.

Being a proactive air traveler this summer can help speed you and your fellow travelers on your way. The TSA is urging passengers to prepare for security checks by visiting for tips and advice on packing.

"Historically, summer is a very busy time for inexperienced travelers," said Nico Melendez, TSA spokesman. "We have some very simple things they can do."

Among the suggestions: While waiting in line and long before you reach the security checkpoint, place anything that might set off metal detectors into a carry-on bag.

"That could save people between two [and] three minutes," Melendez said. "When you are talking about 200 million people, if they are even saving 10 seconds each, that's a lot of time."

Here are some other Web tips to help prepare you for your journey this summer:

* Check in for your flight on the Web, if it's offered, before you leave home or office. If you have no bags to check, you can walk right to security. Many airlines have a line for passengers who already have their boarding passes and just need to check bags.

* The Federal Aviation Administration maintains a real-time airport status Web page on its site (Click "Airports and Air Traffic" and "Airport Status.") A color-coded map shows in real time whether an airport is experiencing flight delays.

* The Weather Channel's website features travel forecasts and planning tools that allow you to look 10 days ahead. Go to and click on "Travel," then "Daily Traveler," then "Airport Impact" forecast maps.

Travelocity, Expedia and many airlines allow passengers to sign up for automated flight updates on their websites. Though not as complete a service as that offered by Orbitz, they can still keep you abreast of changing conditions.

Contact James Gilden at

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