What to do when you (may) miss your flight

Missing a flight is something a lot of people try to avoid, but even for well-prepared travellers it can happen sometimes. As many people never experience it, we thought that it would be helpful to share our experience and help you when you either have missed your flight or think that you may miss it. Here is our list of tips.

  1. Do your homework. This sounds basic, but it’s important. Qatar Air closes their checkin desk an hour before takeoff. Other airlines close even earlier. Sometimes in the mainland you can check in just half an hour before takeoff – in Japan I’ve been on domestic flights where the advertised cutoff time for checkin is just fifteen minutes before scheduled takeoff time. Knowing what you are working with in terms of time is important when you are up against the clock. For example, checking in for economy class at Hong Kong airport with Hong Kong airlines or Air China you’ll often face a half hour wait. If checkin is due to close after you have joined the queue but before you have reached its head to be served, you need to know that.
  2. Contact the airline at the earliest opportunity. The sooner you contact the airline if you anticipate that you may miss the flight the more likely that they can either make a special arrangement for you, or reaccommodate you more seamlessly on the next available flight. For example, one time I was heading to Hong Kong airport for a Cathay flight to India. The traffic was so slow that I realised there was some risk I may miss my flight. I called Cathay and they immediately offered to put me on another flight several hours later. I did not need to pay any fee, and as it turned out I did indeed arrive at the airport too late for my original flight. Had I simply waited until I arrived at the airport, I may well have had to pay to change the flight. Similarly, I had a Hong Kong Airlines ticket which allowed free changes up to two hours before departure. I changed it multiple times. On the day of scheduled departure, when I wanted to change it, I had to pay a fee, but only because I had left it to less than two hours before the scheduled departure. If you have booked through a travel agent, they often can help, but sometimes the airline can be more immediately helpful.
  3. Contact the airline at the airport. On one occasion I was flying from Guangdong to Hong Kong on Shanghai Airlines, then had a connection of around one hour to a Cathay flight to north America. This was already a tight itinerary given the frequency of inbound delays from China, but I booked it as I had no alternatives. The inbound flight arrived at the satellite terminal, with no Cathay transfer desk, so I had first to wait ten minutes for a bus, then wait while the bus was slowed by tarmac traffic, and reached the Cathay transfer desk in terminal one – which had a queue – only about half an hour before scheduled departure. The ground staff refused to board me and put me onto a later, indirect flight which was much less convenient (and was what I had been trying to avoid with my original itinerary). They said that I should have let the ground agent meeting my original inbound flight know as soon as I landed that I wanted to make the Cathay flight. That surprised me, as the ground staff were for Shanghai Airlines, but Cathay insisted that they would have helped me. This situation, by the way, shows one risk of booking separate tickets rather than a linked itinerary. If I had had a Cathay Dragon inbound flight, the airline would have known about my delay and likely had a gate agent waiting to escort me when I arrived, if they felt there was a chance of me making my connection. Using a different airline on two different bookings, this didn’t happen and Cathay could have refused to put me on any other flight at all, unreasonable though that may seem.
  4. Consider checking in online. This is one for the pros. Cathay Dragon, for example, generally closes checkin at Hong Kong forty five minutes before departure. However, if you had no checked baggage and an electronic boarding pass, you could conceivably arrive at the airport half an hour before departure and still make the flight if the security lines were not too long and the gate was convenient. So, if you are en route to the airport and not yet checked in, checking in online may be the difference between making the flight and not. I say it’s for the pros, however, because having checked in, if you then don’t make it to the gate in time, you may be charged a no show fee which you wouldn’t if you hadn’t checked in. Your ticket conditions will determine this.
  5. Research your alternatives. It can be helpful to know exactly what your other options are, even before you have missed a flight. For example, while the ground agent is calling her supervisor to ask if you can still check in, you could be looking up other itineraries which might suit you, either because you can suggest them proactively to the ground staff, or because time is limited and you need to book those alternative itineraries immediately. For example, once, Thai Airways at Singapore refused to check me in for the penultimate flight of the night to Bangkok. While the ground agent was phoning her colleagues basically to pass the buck, I looked up alternative flights and realised that my only alternative to get to Bangkok directly that night was another flight leaving in less than one hour, so I went and bought that ticket at the airport rather than wasting more time with the Thai merry go round.
  6. Figure out your flexibility. Some people let the blind panic of missing a flight threaten their rationality. It can be helpful to figure out whether or not you actually need to be on your booked flight. For example, if no other flight will get you to a scheduled event in time, you may well feel you need to be on it. However, if you’re going on a flexible social visit and it doesn’t matter much what time you arrive, a later flight might be fine even if it wasn’t your original plan. Similarly, travel connections or plans at the other end can be relevant. This matters because if you risk missing your flight, you have a choice of how much you want to rush to make it, and sometimes how pleading you plan to be with ground staff. Figuring out your flexibility can help you decide whether that’s a good use of your effort.

Everyone has their own story. We’d love to hear more about our readers’ tips, techniques and experiences in mitigating the impact of missed or almost missed flights – please post your comments below. Thanks.

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