Interminable delays and canceled flights. Looming strikes. Soaring ticket prices. Disappearing luggage. It's enough to make you swear off flying for good.
Certainly Mark E. Crowson wished he could, as he stood helplessly at the gate at Atlanta's Hartsfield International Airport last month, unable to board a flight for Omaha that was due to take off at any moment. But the truth was the executive vice-president of iShopSecure, a Davie (Fla.) startup that makes software for secure Web transactions, had to get on that plane for a critical negotiation.
The nightmare began when Crowson's commuter flight from his hometown airport in Columbus, Ga., was canceled without explanation. Desperate, Crowson jumped into his car and drove two hours to Atlanta to make his connecting flight. But a refund snafu and computer problems took up an hour at the Delta Air Lines Inc. help desk. Still without a boarding pass and with just 10 minutes to spare, Crowson sprinted all the way to the gate. "I let it be known that I was getting aggravated," he recalls. "I asked the Delta staff if they were ready to reimburse my company millions of dollars if we didn't get the contract."
Meanwhile, Crowson's boss, iShopSecure's CEO, Joseph A. McDonnell, was already seated in the plane's 35th row, talking to Crowson by cell phone. "I don't get angry. I get aggressive," says McDonnell, 35. He marched up to the cockpit--not a tactic we'd recommend--where a flight attendant blocked his path. Fortunately, the pilot, who heard the ruckus, listened to McDonnell's plea. He then called the control tower to delay takeoff for five minutes so Delta could issue Crowson a new ticket. In the end, Crowson got on the plane--and the execs clinched the deal.
So quick thinking and moxie can help. But more often business travelers are at the mercy of forces they can't control, and there's likely to be plenty of turbulence in the months ahead. Consider these trends:
-- Last year, a record number of flights were canceled or delayed--more than one in four, according to Transportation Dept. figures. This summer it could get worse, particularly if unions at Northwest (NWAC), Delta (DAL), American (AMR), and United (UAL) stage sick-outs, slowdowns, or strikes. "This will be the worst summer ever for air travel," predicts Christopher J. Elliott, editor of Ticked.com, a Web site for travel gripes.
-- Airline mergers now pending could reduce choices and exacerbate the already serious problems with luggage handling and customer service. That's because it usually takes at least six months for merged carriers to integrate their systems.
-- Prices for 2001 could rise 8% to 10%--unless the economic slowdown prompts airlines to keep a lid on fare increases. This year, the National Business Travel Assn. (NBTA) predicts the average business fare will reach $1,070, an 8% increase from the previous year. Even if prices stay flat, they're no bargain: In 2000, price hikes on no-advance-purchase airfares rose an average of $330 for flights of more than 1,500 miles.
What's a weary road warrior to do? Work harder to reach your destination. To help, BusinessWeek Small Biz has assembled the best advice that veteran small-biz travelers and experts have to offer--from tips about when to fly to how to get cheap flights. Also, it pays to ask your airlines what special deals, such as bonus miles, they have for small-business customers.
The cost of failing to wise up can be pretty high. The NBTA calculates that U.S. businesses lost $794 million in productive time just from the increase in delays between 1998-99. And "nobody gets hit as bad as the small-businessperson," says Alexander Anolik, a consumer travel attorney in San Francisco and general counsel for the nonprofit Consumer Travel Rights Center in Lexington, Ky.
Why small biz? You probably don't have a big staff to fill in when you or your key people are stuck on the road. And you don't have a big corporate travel department to rescue you. Plus, if you're like most entrepreneurs, you probably tend to do a lot of pricey, last-minute travel and don't wield the clout for corporate discounts.
Travel frustration leads some entrepreneurs to take drastic measures. Thomas R. Niesen, 46, CEO of Dallas' Acuity Training Systems, says unreliable air service forced him to forgo roughly $400,000 in business last year for his seven-employee sales training firm. Why? He can't schedule as many seminars because he and his trainers have to build in more travel time. Despite his best efforts, Niesen has had to refund checks to clients for missed seminars--for as much as $10,000 a pop. "It's so frustrating I don't want to fly," he says. The solution: Niesen is refocusing his business to concentrate on Texas and the Southwest.
But what happens when face time is essential and it's too far to drive or take the train? Mostly, you grumble and go. So put your seats in the upright position and fasten your seat belts. Here's how to make the best of a bad situation:
EFFICIENCY RULES: To be a true road warrior, become, above all, a master at scheduling. Take Niesen. When he travels, he schedules plenty of buffer time. He also checks airline schedules for alternatives--before he leaves for the airport. If he needs to rebook a flight, he avoids the crush at the ticket counter. Instead, he uses the airline reservation numbers programmed into his cell phone.
THINK CHEAP: One favorite strategy of small-biz travelers is using cheaper, alternative airports. For example, John V. Britti, 41, the chief operating officer for 15-employee TenX Venture Partners, a Conshohocken (Pa.) company that invests in startups and turnarounds, routinely flies out of Baltimore, where he can get a last-minute round-trip flight on Southwest Airlines (LUV) to Houston for $260. From Washington he might have to pay $1,200 for the same trip. Darlene K. Pearson, 37, CEO of the Avenue Group Inc., a 40-employee software training and e-learning company in Charlotte, N.C., expects to double her company's business travel this year. "You have to be out there to sell," says Pearson, who travels up to three weeks a month. To reduce costs, Pearson employs a part-time travel coordinator on staff who cruises the Net for the best fares, frequently booking on smaller, lower-cost airlines.
KEEP YOUR BALANCE: Sometimes, getting a cheaper, less convenient flight can wind up costing you more in the long run. You're more likely to hit cancellations and delays with multiple connections, and your drive to an alternate airport might be longer. You also might have a hard time transferring your ticket to another airline. (Reciprocal ticketing policies vary.) "It's always a balance of time vs. money for the small-business traveler," says Joe A. Brancatelli, a consultant for Biztravel.com. Pearson found that out the hard way when she drove more than two hours from Charlotte to Raleigh, N.C., to get a $329 round-trip flight to Denver on Midway Airlines (MDWY), instead of paying about $1,400 to fly on US Airways from Charlotte. Pearson's 9:30 a.m. return flight was canceled because of mechanical problems, and no other airline flew directly back to Raleigh. So, she had to wait nine hours until the next Midway flight. "I am not sure I would do it again and lose a whole day," she says.
JOIN THE CLUB: When the going gets tough, head for an airport lounge. "Anybody who is not investing in an airport club is a fool," says Biztravel's Brancatelli. Fees range from $200 to $400--"piddling, if you value your time." Club amenities usually include comfy chairs, a bar, telephones, Internet access, and a less frenetic ticketing desk.
PLUG IN: Keep abreast of union problems, merger hassles, chronically late flights, and congested airports by talking to your travel agent or checking news updates at www.mytravelrights.com or expedia.com. Also, you can sign up for e-mail alerts and phone-paging systems offered by some airlines and travel Web sites. For example, go to American Airlines Inc.'s Web site (www.aa.com) to get voice-message alerts sent to your cell or home phone.
WATCH YOUR BAG: By all means, carry on your suitcase, but not vital business samples or documents. Ship them ahead, because airlines often keep luggage out of the cabin if planes are crowded. Case in point: In June, 1999, cartoonist Vivian Greene was en route to a licensing show in New York. She says American Airlines made her check a carry-on-size box of 100 original greeting card designs at the gate--and lost it. Without samples, Greene only drummed up two sales leads at the show, compared to her usual 40 to 60. American didn't respond to BusinessWeek Small Biz's repeated requests for comment. Generally, airlines don't cover the loss of business samples, records, and equipment, says travel attorney Anolik.
WAVE YOUR RIGHTS: If your flight is canceled or delayed and it's the airline's fault, consult its Rule 240 filing. (It's available at www.mytravelrights.com). That's the document all carriers must submit to the Transportation Dept. detailing what they will provide for late or stranded passengers, including substitute bookings, hotels, and refunds. If you have a problem, wave the document in front of the ticket agents. "It's like a cross to the werewolves," Anolik says.
SERVICE, PLEASE: Join the frequent-flier program of every airline you use regularly. "The airlines will treat you just a modicum better," says Dean E. Headley, co-author of Airline Quality Rating, an annual report ranking the 10 major U.S. airlines. If you're a very frequent flier, you may qualify for elite memberships that carry extra benefits for travelers that meet set limits. The royal treatment often includes first dibs on standby seats and no change fees. For example, Jeffrey Eyestone, 36, a vice-president at Merallis Co., an 81-employee information-systems company in Rocky Hill, Conn., belongs to United Airlines Inc.'s Premier Executive 1K program for those who log 100,000 miles or more a year. And he usually changes tickets at United's Red Carpet Club, where lines are shorter. If something goes wrong, United often makes it up to Eyestone with extra frequent-flier points.
Those miles do come in handy: Eyestone and his wife used theirs for a free trip to Australia. "I have every perk I can get," he says. Seems that's one way to stay out of the frequently frustrated fliers' club. By Janin Friend