"Airlines are desperate right now for loyalty," said RLM PR founder and CEO Richard Laermer, a 2 million-mile flyer who writes about airline service. "They'll pretty much do anything so you don't hate them."Laermer offered WalletPop tips for getting comps when you're grounded by Mother Nature, a distinct possibility this winter -- 18,500 flights were grounded last week alone because of snowstorms. First thing, be the compassionate one to the gate agent amid the inevitable sea of screaming meanies. The agent will perhaps accommodate you first, Laermer said. Remember the chain of command: The agent's supervisor is the highest person you'll need for grabbing freebies. They're authorized to make those decisions -- and most will be at their discretion because airlines technically don't owe you squat in a weather delay.
Don't surrender and walk away from the gate. All your negotiating will happen there. Going home and kvetching to your pals about your nightmare experience will not win you deserved rewards, Laermer said.
Ask for a hotel. In many cases it doesn't have to be just any hotel. Do the research on your smartphone. "Stand on your tippy-toes until you get the hotel you want," he said. Laermer rejected a Days Inn offer recently, telling the agent that as an executive and frequent traveler, he should get the Hyatt. He got the Hyatt. If you are in too long a line to be granted said inn gimme, Laermer suggests running to a hotel that you want, buying the room and mailing the receipt with an explanation to the highest-level airline executive you can find online. Do not order room service. As long as the hotel bill is reasonable, airlines will usually reimburse you, he said.
Among the other items you should firmly request: food vouchers (and not just one meal), Wi-Fi cards, medical must-haves and baby gear such as diapers and formula. (Some airports have installed dispensers for the latter, according to The Wall Street Journal.) One of Laermer's favorite maneuvers is to wrangle a ticket into the lounge, which can mean free liquor and other niceties.
No harm in querying about the availability of the goody bag for kids. They want to keep little ones happy. A plush toy and coloring book are worth that. If a cot and shower are the only compensation in the offing, as they were at many hubs in the recent blizzards, they're not so bad, Laermer said. Before this winter, stranded flyers on an airport sleepover would more often have to fold their spines between chair armrests to snooze, according to the Journal.
It should be repeated that airlines in the U.S. can say no to all of the above in a weather event. They have fewer obligations than when delays are tied to a mechanical problem or scheduling blunder. If it's the airline's fault, $25 flight credits for delays as short as an hour at Jet Blue start to kick in, according to the New York Times. However, the potential for hazardous PR plus persistence make it harder for carriers to say no. "People forget they have a voice," Laermer said. "Don't lose that voice at the airport."
But -- and it's a big one -- regular folks who travel infrequently are less likely to get freebies. "If you have status or clout, you'll get anything you want," said travel strategist Steven Frischling of Flying With Fish. After losing hundreds of millions in the recent snows, airlines will think hard about doling out comps, he explained, especially to bargain travelers who have no track record of airline loyalty.
There are ways the little guy can make himself bigger, Frischling added. You can improve potential airline response after a delay by establishing a friendly Twitter dialogue with an airline rep beforehand. (For instance, you could ask for advice on certain travel issues.) Or when the time comes for threatening to expose the airline in cyberspace for being such knuckleheads, show off your Internet smarts. Show that you know how to stretch the reach of your complaint missives with hashtags, digit-marked key words that enhance the search engine appeal of tweets. Indicate that you know how to reach the industry-read blogs and critics, such as Johnny Jet -- you'll get more action. A threat to tweet about bad treatment isn't enough, Frischling said. Airlines can check how big your Twitter following is, and can find out how influential you are elsewhere in social media.
Laermer added that bad-mouthing that chokes up the blogosphere can have an effect if widespread enough. "All it takes is one lit match," he said.
You're at the airlines' mercy when Old Man Winter roars. But remember, the airlines are at your mercy as well. Being the squeaky wheel can work one of two ways, Frischling said. If you're holding up the line as you talk to an agent while keeping your voice down, the airline is more apt to grant your requests. But if you're making a scene and everyone's hearing what you're demanding -- and could be getting -- the reps will shut you out. Don't be a blowhard. But don't be a pushover, either.