getting around

The Flight Hack Is Dead

Photo: Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Passengers on an American Airlines flight from Charlotte to New York City this weekend reportedly wept and had panic attacks after spending six hours on the runway with “no AC, no food, no drink service.” Statistically speaking, odds are good that at least one of them was an AAAdvantage member. The flight hack — gathering rewards points, maximally sized carry-ons, TSA PreCheck — has long been the domain of the savvy traveler, offering a semblance of control in a world of chaos. Others may be helpless specks navigating the airline oligopoly, but you read tips from the New York Times and blogs with names like Johnny the Travel Genius.

Except now, airlines are selling tickets for flights they know they can’t staff and will have to cancel, and, at least through the first four months of the year, causing more than half of the flight delays that trap their customers in travel hell — more than storms, air-traffic-control capacity, and security glitches. (As Robert Kuttner of The American Prospect recently explained, the staff shortages are largely self-inflicted and profit-motivated.) Combine that with summer travel demand and a little bad weather, and we’ve landed in our current mess. Good luck getting around that by downloading an airline’s app. The flight hack was maybe always something of an illusion. Now it’s dead.  

According to the flight-tracking company FlightAware, 2.8 percent of U.S. airline flights have been canceled so far this year, and 20 percent have been delayed, which is bad — and isn’t all that different than pre-pandemic travel: In 2019, the cancellation rate was 2.1 percent, and delays were at 17 percent. Holiday weekends have been the true gauntlet this year, with four times as many cancellations as in 2019. And no airline is immune — on the Friday of July 4 weekend, 45 percent of JetBlue flights were delayed, along with a third of United, American Airlines, and Southwest flights. Delta came out looking the best, with just a quarter of its departures late. Consumer complaints against airlines have risen 300 percent since pre-pandemic levels and with ticket costs surging, we’re now paying more for the privilege of a miserable experience. (To say nothing of the $50 billion bailout that was meant to keep workers employed and airlines prepared for a travel rebound.)

What leverage does a traveler have against a powerful airline? A flight attendant’s “tips on surviving travel now” reads more like a guide to bracing for defeat than any kind of insider secrets. She suggests leaving an entire day early so you lessen your chance of missing your intended plans and flying direct. (She also advises bringing a sweater.) Bloomberg recommends having a lot of money. The Street reminds you to “know your luggage,” and the Washington Post suggests messaging airlines on social media when you have an issue. (Twitter is currently littered with rewards members of various airlines complaining, understandably, that their status hasn’t meant much when it came to cancellations, delays, and paying out of pocket for other logistics.)

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, the man everyone is begging to do something about this, has even offered his own tip, encouraging travelers to find out how much their points are worth in cash when they get a refund. (This was after Buttigieg’s own flight was delayed and he got $112.07 refunded instead of $30 worth of points.)

In the absence of meaningful government intervention — fines, blocking mergers, protecting consumers from price-gouging — airlines will laugh in your face as you scroll The Points Guy while maybe getting your third round of COVID in the airport.

In a sea of useless advice, there has been one recent tip from a worker in the industry that actually might save a traveler some time and money: “If it’s less than 7 hours — DRIVE!” Or better yet, take the bus.

The Flight Hack Is Dead