Airline Going Under? What To Do.

Like the pigs in the parable “The Three Little Pigs,” Delta Air Lines averted a strike by the hair on its chinny-chin-chin. This time it was Delta. Next time, it could be Delta again, but it could just as easily be Northwest, United, Continental or any U.S. carrier.

The airline industry is in a tailspin. Oil is very close to $70 a barrel, Northwest and Delta are still in bankruptcy, Independence has ceased operations and the labor force, as a whole, is unhappy with its end of the “bargain”. Passengers are upset, and it seems to me that loyalty to individual carriers is waning. Delta said that a pilots’ strike would put the airline out of business. All told, not a great situation for flying the friendly skies.

What will happened if your airline goes under? Nobody knows. Certainly not the millions of frequent and not-so-frequent fliers who are now anxiously examining their tickets and mileage statements.

So, what’s a traveler to do? My advice has not changed much from last year, when I first wrote on this topic.

Protect your investment. First, buy on credit. Your credit card company may give you some protection if your airline fails to deliver the product it promised. But make sure it is a credit card, because a debit card purchase won’t be protected; a debit transaction is essentially a cash transaction. Second, get travel insurance. As long as your carrier is not on your insurer’s “Do Not Insure” list, your investment, less the premium, will be protected. (Check with your travel professional to find out who’s on the list.) Frequent travelers will have to weigh the benefits, however, as cost will be an issue for them.

Protect your itinerary. When your plane is grounded for good, the remaining U.S.–based carriers are required by federal law to protect you by honoring the defunct carrier’s ticket. But only on the exact same route, and only on a standby basis, so you will be vulnerable in markets that are served by only a few carriers. For now, the mandated rebooking fee is not to exceed $50 per person per flight — not per trip, per flight. Of course, if you’re rebooked, don’t expect to be on time to your destination. In fact, you should expect to be delayed at least a full day, so you will need to modify or cancel your down-line reservations, including hotels, meeting rooms, car rentals, cruises and other modes of transportation.

Beware the code share. When code sharing started in the 1990s, the idea was to extend an airline’s reach (and market share) by sharing equipment with other airline partners. At the time, it was unthinkable that a partner would stop flying. When it does happen, chaos will reign: Lufthansa’s people on US Airways’ planes, Emirates’ people on Delta’s planes, Singapore’s people on United’s planes, Continental’s people on Delta’s planes — the list goes on and on. In fact, when one airline stops flying, the shutdown will probably affect the operations of 10 to 20 other carriers. Thank you Star Alliance and Oneworld!

Remember, the code-share partner entered into the agreement because they didn’t have the equipment to service you in the first place. If your airline is facing a lot of turbulence, you are better off booking your reservation with the carrier whose planes will actually get you to your destination. It may cost a bit more, but it is a nice insurance policy if you absolutely must be someplace at a given time.

What about my points? So, you have amassed a million points. Congratulations. But if your carrier ceases operations or grounds its fleet, those points are pretty much worthless. People with fewer than 100,000 points can try to convert them to magazine subscriptions or merchandise through a service like For more than 100,000 points, I suggest you make an award-ticket reservation with a partner airline, flying on the partner’s equipment. The partner will honor that ticket, no matter how it was obtained. If you need to change the reservation down the line, most airlines will accommodate you for a fee — typically around $100.

What can you do now? Step away from the Web. Imagine the huge number of transactions that online agencies (including the airline’s own sites) handle on a typical day. Now imagine the day when a major airline stops flying. The online sites do not have a mechanism to handle a situation of that magnitude.

Instead, you need to go back in time, way back to the days when you dealt directly with a human being for your air travel needs. If you are booked online, get a telephone number and contact your agency directly. Yes, Orbitz and Travelocity are travel agencies, and if you booked with them, they must help you rebook your flights. But be prepared for a wait, because phone inquiries to the online agencies are typically handled through a call center. You can also try calling the airline directly, but know that airline reservations lines average a 20-minute hold on a good day. Of course, the ticket counters will be swamped.

All in all, this might be an outstanding time to have been working with a traditional travel agent. More often than not, traditional travel agents can access the airline’s inventory faster than the airline itself, and they can reticket you immediately. Unfortunately, they can’t usually “fix” an online reservation — or any other reservation that was not booked by them in the first place.

So, if your airline is about to go down, listen up: Do not book your tickets online, use your credit card for all ticket transactions, purchase insurance if it is feasible, move some miles, prepare for the worst and be sure to keep your travel professional’s business card handy.

Delta may have dodged the bullet this time, but you can be assured that the turbulence is not over by a long shot. Personally, I think we could stand to lose a carrier or two; our transportation infrastructure might end up more solid and our skies might become friendly again. It will take some time to sort everything out, but with a dose of patience, a pinch of manners — no, make that a heap of manners — and a clear head, we will get through this mess.

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