A recent ploy by some airlines might cause you inconvenience as you travel this fall and holiday season. Under the guise of "fuel conservation," flights are being canceled - sometimes at the last minute. I suspect the cancellations have less to do with conservation and more to do with money: The flights are not sufficiently full to make a profit for the airline.
However you feel about these schemes, there are certain actions you can take to protect yourself and ease your travels.
Answer your phone. When I had a flight rearranged because of a fuel conservation cancellation, the airline left a message on my cell phone. The problem is that when I'm not traveling, I rarely use my cell phone; the message went unheard until two days before my flight. That made things dicey because the canceled flight connected to an international flight, and there wasn't that much room to maneuver. So, make sure you give the airline a number where you will actually get the message. Go the extra step and give the airline a backup number, too.
Call ahead. A few days before your trip, call your airline and check that your flight is on track. Be sure to ask if they anticipate any cancellations, and reconfirm that they have your preferred phone number. Don't do this just for your departing flight; check on your return flight as well. There is nothing worse then being stranded in a distant city when you want nothing more than to get home.
Load the dice. Maximize your chances of flying by avoiding flights that have a history of low loads. When booking your flight, ask the agent what the average load factor is for the flight. Ordinarily, I try to avoid flying during peak periods because there's less chance of getting an upgrade to first class, but for the duration of the fuel crisis, I recommend looking for flights that are certain to fly. Go for the middle ground: If a flight has an average load of 60 percent, it probably will not be canceled and you'll still have a shot at an upgrade.
Remain calm and flexible. Travel throws curve balls once in a while. When it does, it's not the end of the world. But attitude is key. Patience, courtesy, good humor and flexibility always give you a leg up in negotiations with airline agents. When my flight was canceled, I had to do some creative work with the agent to get back into first class for the domestic portion of the flight. I asked a lot of questions and researched all the available alternatives, finally settling on a flight out of a different airport that guaranteed me the upgrade. It was a decent flight, and my trip went without a hitch.
Get your due. When an airline cancels a flight for "fuel conservation" reasons, they'll tell you it is a national mandate from the president, but what it boils down to is that the airline is inconveniencing you in order to convenience itself. Getting mad and yelling won't accomplish anything, but you are entitled to some consideration. Calmly point out to the agent that your travel plans have been disrupted, then ask that the airline make it up to you. In my case, I received a $75 voucher good for a future flight. Not too bad for having to take a flight two hours earlier. The compensation you'll receive depends on the type of fare you have and the cost of the ticket. I was on an international itinerary in first/business class so $75 was appropriate; if you have a $200 ticket for a two-and-half hour flight, $25 might be the appropriate compensation.
In these times of high fuel prices and bankrupt airlines, travelers need to be proactive in their travel planning. The key is: "Know before you go."