Mobile to the rescue when an airplane trip goes awry

An iPhone and iPad help our intrepid traveler survive flight delays, flight cancellations, and unexpected overnight stays

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The joy of automatic rebooking in staff-less airports
When we approached O'Hare around 3 p.m., the pilot said severe weather was forcing delays in landing, so we circled for more than an hour, before finally touching down about 90 minutes late. My connecting flight had long departed, so I headed to a customer service desk to rebook. As I was walking over, my iPhone lit up with an email from United saying it had automatically rebooked me on a later flight. I went to the United app to get the updated electronic boarding pass and transferred it to the iPhone's Passbook app, which stores all such tickets in one convenient location. (It's not so good at updating live tickets, though; I typically had to refresh the ticket on the United app first.)

Thanks to my use of the mobile app and a smartphone, I got to miss that line of hundreds of displaced travelers who were sure to be stuck for hours before one of the three overworked agents ever got to them.

Staffing levels are so low at airports now that if you need help, you're almost guaranteed not to get it; being able to work the system on your mobile device is critical. I remember one flight last year from Atlanta to Newark where United's ticketing system went down, taking my electronic boarding pass with it. Fortunately, I was already past security, but I could find no one to get me a paper ticket, and of course I had no confirmation number for the kiosk. Because my company's travel agent had booked the trip, the kiosk couldn't find the flight based on a credit card. It goes to show that it makes sense to bring a paper copy of your ticket, especially if you go through airports that have regular weather problems, like Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco, or that have regular FAA holds due to congestion, like New York, Newark, and Washington.

Back to my Chicago experience: When I arrived at the new waiting area for the rebooked flight, the sign changed from the estimated departure time to the words we all dread: "Flight canceled." The rep at the gate had no information and couldn't do anything even if she wanted; gate agents seem to have been stripped of rights to change reservations, at least at United. All she could suggest was a walk to the customer service counter.

Again, within a few minutes, I got a rebooking email on my iPhone -- long line avoided again.

Lesson: Use the airline apps. And be sure you've set up flight notifications.

Lesson: Don't rely on just the apps and notifications. The mobile apps and notifications are a real convenience, but you need to pay attention to other information sources as well. For example, on a trip from Atlanta to New Orleans, I was using my iPad in the waiting area for my flight, and as we got to the boarding time I heard no announcements. I looked at the screen above the gate terminal -- to see it was for a different flight, to Pittsburgh! (I assume the change announcement happened when I ducked away from the gate.) The Delta app had the gate I was at, but the info wasn't right. (I had no choice but to fly Delta on this trip.) I asked the gate agent where my flight was, and he looked it up. I got to the gate as the flight was boarding; 10 minutes more and I would have missed it. Delta's email notification arrived as I was inside the plane getting to my seat -- too late to be useful.

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