I had dinner with a few friends from college last night who berated me for giving props to Delta Airlines. "Delta sucks!" they cried, practically in unison, and proceeded to tell me woeful tales of cancelled flights, rude agents, overnights on the hard airport floors, and general flight mayhem.
Okay, here's the truth, kids: ALL airlines suck, at one point or another (even Southwest). But airlines can also save the day, getting you onto an earlier flight, upgrading you or putting you in an exit row, and flying you across the country for relatively little money. It's like they have split personalities: Sometimes you get cheery, efficient, comfortable Delta, and sometimes you get Evil Delta.
Because airline mishaps always occur, here are a few tips to help make sure things go as smoothly as possible (emphasis on as possible):
1. Do it online. You can check in to most flights 24 hours in advance on the airline's website. Why wouldn't you do that? You avoid long lines at the airport, the airline knows you're going to show up, and you know in advance where you're going to be seated. Do it for the flight home, too: Ask the hotel front desk to help if you don't have a laptop. The airlines have made this process really easy, and it's shocking how many people fail to take advantage. (Granted, it didn't make a difference in one of my friend's horror stories.)
2. Pick up the phone. If you get to the airport and your flight is cancelled or a delay is going to make you miss your connection, get in line—but take out your cell phone and call the airline, too. If it's a crazy day at the airport, chances are you'll get through to a telephone agent who can help you before you've reached the counter. And chances are even better that the agent on the phone won't be frazzled beyond belief and ready to tear off your complaining head and eat it for lunch.
3. BE NICE!!!!! It's a cliché, but you do catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Yes, some agents are curt or impatient or stupid. Some agents withhold the truth or even lie. But chances are that dealing with hundreds of angry passengers has made them just as stressed out as you are. So spare them the screaming, grumbling, eye-rolling, and sarcastic comments. Instead, approach them with a smile and a modicum of sympathy: "Wow, it's crazy here today. How are you holding up?" Then calmly explain your predicament, ask if there's any way they can help, and be understanding if they can't. It's hard to remain calm and polite when the circumstances are infuriating. But I almost always find that if you treat an airline employee like a human being, they'll treat you the same way in return.
4. Be loyal. I say this all the time, but elite members of an airline's frequent flier program will get treated better—pushed to the front of the line, given priority for rebooking, and so forth. It's not easy to achieve elite membership (albeit easier on American than on other major airlines) but it's never going to happen to people who use a different airline every time they fly. Choose one or two airlines who serve your home city and fly them—or their partners—every single time. Even if you have to shell out an extra $20 for the fare, your investment will pay off when you're getting looked after by Nice Airline and everyone else is getting its evil twin.