In order to fly to Miami for my recent Carnival Breeze cruise, I booked flights using my Star Alliance frequent-flier points.

As anyone who has ever booked an airline reward flight can tell you, the itineraries offered were less than ideal: on my way to Miami, I’d be routed through Calgary and Houston. On the return, Washington’s Dulles airport and Toronto Pearson.

Planes at Toronto Pearson International Airport. Flying can be a great opportunity to relax. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

Planes at Toronto Pearson International Airport. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

The return flights were particularly concerning: a 45-minute connection at Dulles and a 90-minute stint in Toronto, where I’d have to clear Canadian customs, collect my luggage, re-clear security and then make it to my gate.

Surprisingly, my Dulles connection went off without a hitch. My United Airlines jet from Miami arrived at Gate D1, and I leisurely strolled to Gate D8 for my connecting United Express flight to Toronto.

Toronto was where everything fell apart.

An Air Canada flight loads at Vancouver International Airport. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

An Air Canada flight loads at Vancouver International Airport. Photo © 2012 Aaron Saunders

Despite landing ten minutes ahead of schedule, our gate was occupied by another aircraft. Then, our gate crew disappeared, leaving no one to guide the aircraft in. Instead of arriving early, I didn’t step off the aircraft until 45 minutes after we’d touched down.

By the time I had cleared customs and had arrived at baggage claim, it was 5:30pm – a full hour after landing, and only 30 minutes to go until the departure of my Vancouver-bound flight with Air Canada. When my luggage eventually arrived – at 5:45pm – it was clear I wasn’t going to make my connection.

At the connecting baggage belt, the Air Canada employee scanning passes felt the same, and ushered me into the line to rebook my flight.

Finding your connecting flight is a breeze. Note that screens will display flights first in Korean, then English. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

More flights are leaving full – and being cancelled – than in the past two decades. Photo © 2013 Aaron Saunders

I fly through Toronto a lot, and I knew that there was another flight leaving at 8pm. I wasn’t terribly concerned. But I was surprised when the agent who helped me said absolutely nothing to me for nearly five minutes while she clicked and clacked away at the keyboard before stating, “You’re rebooked on the 10:55 flight.”

I was a bit taken aback, so I asked if I could be put on Air Canada 033, departing at 8pm – on a 270-passenger Boeing 777-200LR. The answer? A curt, “It’s full.” Even my Frequent Flier status was no help in snagging me a seat.

Think about that! A nearly 300-passenger jet was entirely full. The small 66-passenger CRJ-700 that brought me to Toronto was barely half-full, yet this widebody behemoth was packed to the rafters.

Love it or hate it, there's no denying that Toronto's Pearson Airport is one attractive building. Pictured here is Terminal 1's International Departures level.

Toronto Pearson Airport’s Terminal 1. Photo © Aaron Saunders

So, I wound up spending five hours at Toronto Pearson airport before taking the one flight no one ever wants to – a six-hour jaunt to Vancouver on a small Airbus A320, middle seat, back of the bus, arriving in at 1:30am local time. The kicker? As I understand it, I was one of the last people to get a seat on that flight.

As the Associated Press reported last week, my experience isn’t exactly unique. As terrible weather continues to hammer many parts of the United States and Canada, backlogs are being created of travellers trying to get to their destination. In fact, flight cancellations haven’t been this bad since the late 1980’s.

The problem is being exacerbated by record load factors. As airlines look to maximize profits and per-seat costs, aircraft are flying at or near capacity on many flights. The knock-on effect is that, unlike a few years ago when five, maybe ten seats might have been available, your average jet may only have one or two seats free – and a long list of standby passengers waiting to claim them.

My own experience was a bit of a revelation; I’ve missed flights before due to weather or inbound aircraft issues, but have always been accommodated on another flight. I was this time as well – but just barely. And that was on a domestic flight that operates multiple times per day.

The moral of this story is to pay close attention to your flight bookings. Use your experience. If a particular connection looks too tight, chances are it will be. Reward bookings often offer the absolute worst routings and connection times available. Ask yourself if the increased travel time offsets the financial cost of the flights sufficiently to make it worth it.

And above all else – make sure you fly in the day before your cruise. It looks like the bizarre weather and record load factors are here to stay.

An Air Canada jet taxis through the snow in Montreal. Photo courtesy of Air Canada

An Air Canada jet taxis through the snow in Montreal. Photo courtesy of Air Canada

From the Deck Chair will return tomorrow.


2 Responses to The Changing Landscape of Cruise Airfare

  1. Jim says:

    We had a similar experience to your own, trying to use Aeroplan points to fly on Air Canada or United from Toronto or Detroit to Orlando for an upcoming cruise on the “re-imagined” Disney Magic. We would have spent more time in layovers than in the air, with a total trip time of about 10 hours. Instead we cashed in our points for Amex gift cards, and booked with Delta direct from DTW to MCO in 2h40m. The assorted taxes, fees, and convoluted itineraries attached to a “free” flight, particularly out of YYZ, make points travel into a joke.

    • Aaron Saunders says:

      Precisely. Thanks for sharing your experience, Jim. I’m glad you were able to find a suitable alternative to get to Florida!

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