Headed to the airport? Expect the worst

Joe Sharkey begins his "On the Road" for the New York Times by saying what you've already heard from me, and from others who follow travel: "Air Travel Is a Mess ... All week, I've been hearing from readers about missed connections and delayed flights as airlines are flying into the peak summer travel season with load factors—the percentage of seats filled—approaching 90 percent. With demand up and overall domestic capacity down, there is absolutely no slack in the system."

With the air-travel system operating at peak capacity, flight disruptions, cancellations, and delays can quickly ripple throughout the network, backing up flights and inconveniencing flyers at multiple airports.

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So what's a would-be traveler to do? Begin by monitoring the past and current on-time performance of comparable flights. Chronically delayed flights can be avoided; in some markets, there are alternatives to the most congested airports.

Predictably, the airlines are none too anxious to publicize their operational shortcomings. So Sharkey recommends FlightStats.com, a website which compiles delay and cancellation data for airports, individual airlines, and particular flights.

Inconvenience is a fact of travel life that can be minimized if not eliminated altogether. And where flight cancellations and delays are concerned, forewarned is forearmed.

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