I recently read with horror a USA Today article about a US Airways flight from NY to Phoenix that sat on the tarmac for seven hours at JFK before finally departing. That's miserable for any passenger. Now imagine having your young child sitting next to you. Having just finished another relatively successful travel experience with Travelin' Junior, Travelin' Mom and I got home and excitedly booked our next trip. Had we just stepped off that US Airways flight instead, I don't think we'd be nearly as quick to pull the travel trigger. Kids or no kids, you obviously always expect some problems on a trip. But, nobody bargains for a a seven-hour runway sit-in.
Problem is, you can't predict whether a flight you scheduled three months earlier will be affected by weather, or a maintenance issue, or the general mass chaos that is O'Hare air traffic (okay, that last one you can sort of see coming). Delay situations are all too common these days. Bureau of Transportation Statistics data show that you had only a 72% chance of arriving at your destination on time through August of this year. The BTS also noted over 150 flights that were grounded on the tarmac for three or more hours in August. Even though those flights make up way less than even 1/100th of a percent of total flights for the month, it still seems scary. I wouldn't be too jazzed if somebody told me I stood a .0002% chance of suffering severe emotional trauma today. Just check out the list: an American flight from Chicago to New York sat on the ground for 5 hours, 25 minutes, a United flight from Washington DC to San Francisco was grounded for 4 hours, 36 minutes, etc. These are pretty common, everyday flights we all take.
Long story short, you travel enough, you're going to get a clunker commute now and then. Realizing you occasionally have to pay your flight-delay dues might even help you cope with the wait while it's happening. But, that's a very tough concept to get across to children, who I've noticed tend to live in the now. When that "now" involves sitting in one place for five hours for no apparent reason, there's gonna be trouble.
So, what to do when you're stuck with your children on a grounded plane for several hours? Beats me. Although, I can say from limited experience that clicking your heels three times and wishing for home only works in movies. The only advice I'd give is to pack for that plane trip as if it were twice as long (i.e., twice the diapers, formula, food, toys, books you think you'll need), because there's a decent chance it just may be. Aside from that, I'd look to the "ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" department and take steps to lower the chances of getting stuck on a delayed plane in the first place:
- Book a direct flight. Twice the flights means twice the chance for delay, not to mention twice the hassle of boarding and deplaning. If you're considering more than one connection, you're either traveling from two unbelievably small cities or a masochist.
- Take an early morning flight. While many business travelers swear by booking the first flight of the day, that's not very practical if it means rousing a toddler at 5:00 a.m. You might also run the risk of delays if flights are out of position from late-night delays the previous day. So, just try to get one of the earlier flights of the day, before the cumulative plane logjam piles up the delays. At the very least, try to avoid evening flights, when delays have piled up and more storms tend to occur.
- Fly on off-peak days. Before Travelin' Junior came along, Travelin' Mom and I joined the masses in the Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving/Sunday-after-Thanksgiving fly-a-thon. Now, we fly out early Thanksgiving morning and return Monday afternoon, which (at least so far) has minimized flight delays and made for much easier airport experiences. The same holds true for avoiding typical business travel days like Sunday, Monday, and Friday.
- Fly bigger, newer planes when possible. They may be more capable of flying through weather and thus less prone to delays/grounding.
- All things being equal, fly from/to the less crowded airport. While it may not be worth going out of your way, if you're neutral about where you fly out of Chicago, you'll stand a better chance of avoiding delays at Midway Airport than O'Hare. Same holds true for places like Long Beach airport rather than LAX, or Long Island rather than LaGuardia or JFK.
Since none of these tips are exactly earth-shattering to those of us who have flown the friendly skies before, I'll give you one other very helpful tip you may not know about: Check out the website avoiddelays.com. It'll help you do just what the name says. The site contains advice from air traffic controllers about avoiding flight delays. That's like getting advice from day care providers about avoiding meltdowns. Among other things, avoiddelays.com provides lists of the most delayed flights, wost departure and arrival airports, worst times to fly into or out of those airports, and average delays for specific airlines and airports. Spending five minutes checking out these statistics before booking your flight could save you several hours of delay-induced pain later on. Unless you've figured out how to make that heel-clicking thing work. . . .