Home for the holidays

An airplane

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Tess Vigeland; Most people need a little more than the power of prayer to get home for the holidays. It's getting a tad late to buy inexpensive airfare.

Scott McCartney writes the Middle Seat column for the Wall Street Journal and he's here with some advice for you procrastinators who haven't booked your seats yet.


Vigeland: Scott, should they just hope for a miracle at this point?

Scott McCartney: You know, this was a very interesting holiday season. People booked quite early -- started booking earlier than probably ever before -- and I think there's a growing realization that prices just are going to keep going up as you get closet to the holiday period. What you can do now is really play around with the dates that you travel. Mid-week, you really have more flexibility in terms of when you're actually going to travel. There are still going to be some good prices for the off-peak days at the holidays.

Vigeland: What kind of improvements, if any, have we seen since the absolute disasters of this summer where people were stuck on runways and all the flight delays -- it was one awful summer for anyone who wanted to fly.

McCartney: You know, it really was. I'm concerned about this holiday period. There are lots of problems in the system. A few airlines have talked about creating more slack in the system, holding back some seats on flights in busy markets at the holiday period so that you do have a little more ability to rebook people if flights get canceled. It's really a situation where I think there are going to be a lot of delays if the weather is bad and some people are gonna get stranded.

Vigeland: What are some strategies for folks who do find themselves stranded or having to deal with the airlines on rebooking at the last minute and that sort of thing, because as you said, you never know when a storm is gonna come up?

McCartney: You know, going to the airport is now a little bit like going on a camping trip. I think there are a few really important strategies. One is pay attention to the weather. If there's a storm bearing down on Chicago and your connection is through Chicago, call the airline and see if you can, you know, switch, get rerouted so that you connect through Cleveland or Houston or wherever.

Vigeland: But then, of course, they're gonna charge you the change fee and, you know, if the ticket is more expensive to go through Houston or Denver, they're going to charge you more money.

McCartney: Well, often they wave those in a storm situation, so if they're anticipating trouble, they will wave the change fees and things like that. The bigger issue is whether they have empty seats somewhere that they can rebook you. But the sooner you call, the better your chance is to get the last couple seats or things like that before everyone else starts calling. You really have to sort of take matters into your own hands.

Vigeland: There was some talk over the summer, during the summer troubles, of legislation or policies to force the airlines to somehow compensate passengers who get stuck on a plane for 10 hours or who get bumped. What happened with that?

McCartney: Two different things. The compensation for bumping is a regulatory matter at the Department of Transportation. It's been more than 20 years since those compensation amounts have been increased and so I think we'll see some kind of increase in the penalties for that and that's a good thing. If the airline can take another passenger for a $1,500 ticket and pay you $400 for bumping you, I really think that's wrong. That's a financial incentive for the airline to bump people and that's not a good thing. In terms of the passenger bill of rights and all that, it's really tricky because not all flights are the same and some flights don't want to have to cancel after four hours. It's very hard to make hard and fast rules. If you're the 9 am flight from New York to Chicago which is full of business people, they may be willing to wait longer than the 9 pm flight to Orlando with a bunch of kids on the flight where a six hour wait is just not acceptable. It's hard, especially with the low-fare environment and the financial trouble that airlines have had, it's in some ways hard to impose severe penalties on them when often it's not the airline's fault, it's the FAA's fault or the airport has a problem or the system just is not able to accommodate all the traffic.

Vigeland: Scott McCartney is the author of the Middle Seat column in the Wall Street Journal. Scott, I hope you really don't have to have the middle seat every time you fly?

McCartney: It does happen -- happened just last week, as a matter of fact.

Vigeland: Thanks for your time.

McCartney: Sure, good to be with you.

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.

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