I flew during the FAA fiasco – and elite status brought me home

I flew during the FAA fiasco – and elite status brought me home

Unless you’ve been offline for the past week, you’ve probably heard about the Federal Aviation Administration temporarily halting all air traffic.

As a West Coast-based flier with plans for an in-state trip, I woke up last Wednesday morning to news of widespread flight cancellations and delays. My outbound flight was supposed to leave an hour late, but my return flight later in the afternoon would probably be fine, right? Fake. Let’s talk about it.

What happened to the FAA?

An overnight outage of the FAA’s Notice to Air Mission, or NOTAM, system forced a ground stop for all aircraft until 8:15 a.m. Wednesday, January 11. And as operations gradually resumed throughout the day, waves of cancellations and flight delays have spread across the country.

According to flight tracking company FlightAware, more than 10,000 flights in the United States were delayed as of 8:30 p.m. EST on January 11, while nearly 1,200 were canceled.

Preliminary reports say it was all due to a damaged database file, the FAA says, but what exactly did it look like to the thousands of people stranded in the field? I was one of them, so let me tell you.

The airport was in chaos

My schedule for the day was relatively simple, flying from San Diego to San Francisco and back to review the new American Express Centurion Lounge.

My original departure flight at 10.15am was delayed an hour in the morning and I received no word of my return flight at 3.15pm – until I was seated on the tarmac for my outbound flight while waiting to to roll. The problem? I needed to be back on time to celebrate my birthday at dinner with my family.

When I finally arrived in San Francisco, the airport was a mess, with people coming and going as gates changed, crews pulled up, and flights were pushed back.

How elite status saved the day

Since my original itinerary was now going to have me missing dinner due to delays caused by the FAA outage, I spent my entire 90 minute flight north trying to find a workaround using Wi-Fi. -Fi in flight. A quick scan of Google Flights showed there was a United Airlines flight that would get me home on time.

The only problem ? It had already passed the flight’s original departure time of 1:07 p.m., so it was impossible to buy a ticket. But like so many other flights across the country, this one had been delayed an hour (until 2:20 p.m.), so I knew it hadn’t taken off yet.

A United courier agent couldn’t help me, so I bought a ticket for an even later flight that evening and attempted to change it myself for the 2:20 pm flight. No dice. Instead, when I landed in San Francisco, I immediately called the First 1K line and sprinted to the United gate of that flight not yet departed.

You see, high end United Elite Members have exclusive access to their own telephone line. Instead of waiting in line or trying to find a customer service representative in the airport, Premier 1K members are instantly directed to an agent who can help them.

So although the other avenues I had taken to change the flight – such as the United courier rep – would not allow me to change my later flight to the 2:20 p.m. option, the Premier 1K telephone agent could.

I ended up spending six hours at the San Francisco airport because that 2:20 p.m. flight kept getting pushed back. In the end, I was able to visit the AmEx Centurion Lounge because I was still waiting to board.

I made several calls to the 1K counter each time my flight was further delayed. United Premier members can change flights for free within 24 hours of departure. So I would ask to be transferred to a new flight without worrying about paying more. Unfortunately, these new flights have also been delayed or cancelled.

It was only after another flight was canceled that I dialed the 1K line to make a final adjustment. Coincidentally, I was put back on the first United flight I had booked for the 2:20 p.m. departure – despite the fact that it was already boarding. Usually you’re not allowed to book a flight that’s already boarding, but the 1K phone agent managed to do that, and it wouldn’t have been possible without my elite status.

I missed my dinner and arrived five hours late, but at least I got home that night.

What to do if your flights are canceled or delayed

You may not have top-tier elite status, but there are always ways to ease your way if your flight plans are disrupted.

  • Avoid busy gate agents for flight changes. Instead, make a phone call to an airport customer service center. These tend to be less busy and opting for both doubles your chances of getting help.
  • Know your rights. Most airlines also have agreements that will place you on another airline’s flights in the event of a delay or cancellation. The transportation department’s handy airline customer service dashboard lists these “commitments for controllable cancellations” for easy reference. If you need to get somewhere and your original itinerary isn’t working out, don’t be afraid to ask to be put on another flight.

Here’s what you can expect from different carriers for “controllable cancellation,” according to the DOT.

Flight delays are not the end of the world

It’s never pleasant when your travel plans are interrupted. But if you have the airline’s elite status, you’ll be first in line for accommodations. At least you’ll skip the line when it comes to contacting an agent.

Otherwise, head to your airline’s customer service center while you wait – and keep the DOT dashboard handy.

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            Carissa Rawson writes for NerdWallet.  Email: [email protected]

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