Reducing variability in air travel

Variability is inherent in air travel. Missed flights, traffic, TSA, and luggage are only some sources of travel delays. However, there are some aspects of variability that you can control.

The commute to the airport – Use rail transit where available.

During my summer living in Chicago, I lived downtown and regularly took an 8:00am flight from O’Hare. My options for getting to the airport were to take a taxi or to take the public rail transit. On average, the cab would get me to the airport in about 40 minutes and taking the rail would take about 60 minutes. Unfortunately, weekday morning traffic in Chicago could either be clear all the way to the airport or completely backed-up; sometimes the cab would deliver me to the airport in 30 minutes, but on the worst day, it took an hour and a half. (On that worst day, I missed my flight. Oops.)

Even though the average time from home to the airport by cab was less, I had to wake up earlier to ensure I would not miss my flight if my cab was late. Assuming I needed to arrive at the airport 60 minutes early, to be guaranteed that I arrived at the airport on time, I needed to leave at 6:00am if taking the public rail transit and 5:30am if I wanted to take a cab.

Currently, I live in Minneapolis and take the light rail to the airport. Google Maps says driving time is 23 minutes, door to door from my house. The light rail takes 28 minutes from my station, comes every 10 minutes and the walk from my apartment to the station is 10 minutes. Although Minneapolis traffic isn’t as brutal as Chicago traffic, dealing with a cab that doesn’t show up could easily cause a missed flight.

Luggage – Beware of gate-checking luggage during peak times.

When it comes to luggage, carrying your luggage yourself is the best way to reduce variability. If your bags never leave your side, you’ll never wait on luggage handlers, period. The calculus changes, however, if you must gate-check your bag on a smaller aircraft.

Especially during peak business travel times (think Monday mornings and Thursday nights) gate-checking luggage can be a nightmare. I’ve seen 40-50 people waiting in the jet bridge for their gate-checked bags some Thursday nights. The massive number of people introduces significant variability, especially if the bags are brought into a jetbridge one-by-one.

During my summer in Chicago, my manager and I flew on flights where we were required to gate-check carry-on bags, so we decided to test checking luggage against carrying luggage on. One of us would check our luggage and one of us would carry on (and gate-check). What we found is that the average time is about the same but that there was much more variability when you gate check bags.

Your mileage will vary wildly with this; my suggestion here is to do some experimentation with the airports you fly to often and figure out what works.

Car rentals – Sign up for the program.

Most car rental companies allow you to go straight to your car and drive off the lot. If you rent cars with any sort of frequency, sign up for this program. Skipping the line at the airport car rental counter is an obvious time-saver. Hertz’s program is called “Hertz #1 Club Gold”, National’s program is called “Emerald Club”, and Avis’ program is called “Avis Preferred”. Often, these programs allow you to return a car by driving it into the rental return and walking away. Again, this is a huge time-saver.

Unfortunately, these programs don’t work at all stations. Even though I am a Hertz #1 Club Gold member, the Tucson Hertz station requires all passengers to present ID at the desk to get their keys. My solution? Since I regularly check luggage, after arrival I proceed directly to the car rental counter to pick up my keys. Once I have my keys, I go back to the luggage carousel and retrieve my bag.

The unavoidable variability – suck it up and arrive early.

There are some airports that just can’t handle their traffic. The Des Moines airport is the worst I’ve dealt with on a regular basis. The airport has no priority security line and the TSA is both slow as molasses and understaffed. Generally, there is only a five minute wait for security in Des Moines. Monday mornings, I have seen waits of both less than five minutes and upwards of an hour. In Des Moines you either plan on getting to the airport early or plan on occasionally missing your flight.

What other variability have you found during your air travels? What are your strategies to reduce it?

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