Three ways to take the stress out of international summer travel

Passengers wait in line to clear U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in 2013. The wait was nearly four hours, according to the person who took this photo. (Click for source.)

Passengers wait in line to clear U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport in 2013. The wait was nearly four hours, according to the person who took this photo. (Click for source.)

In the summer of 1972, the earliest year for which Statistics Canada keeps numbers, 282,210 Canadians returned from trips to foreign countries other than the United States. It took another 16 years before that number finally cracked the 500,000 mark in the summer of 1988, and 17 more years before the one-million mark was passed in the summer of 2005.

If the people who worked in the airports in that busy summer of 2005 thought it was a hectic couple of months, they hadn’t seen anything yet. During July and August 2014, more than 1.7 million Canadians returned from foreign countries other than the U.S. — a 70 percent traffic increase in just nine years.

If the 2000-2014 trend were to continue, by the end of the decade an additional 300,000 Canadians will be coming home from long-haul foreign destinations every July and August, boosting total returnee traffic during those two peak months past the 2 million mark.

That might turn out to be good for Winnipeg’s long efforts to land more long-haul flights. Not only is demand for international travel continuing to rise, but the additional crowding at Canada’s traditional ports of entry and the upcoming launch of new versions of the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 families — which will be able to fly nonstop for the first time from Winnipeg to the British Isles, bits of northwestern Europe or Hawai’i  — could make new seasonal services economically viable.

Yet in the meantime, this soaring demand creates a more pressing concern for Canadians this summer: how to keep one’s sanity in airports and on airplanes that are more tightly packed with people than ever.

1. Mind who you fly with. Even though the days are long gone when airlines advertised that they were so much fun to fly with you might not want to leave the aircraft, or showed supposed airline employees singing and dancing about what great service they offer (yes, that’s Suzanne Somers, pre-Three’s Company), there are still some airlines that have better reputations than others. Skytrax annually assesses the world’s airlines on quality of customer service, assigning one star to North Korea’s Air Koryo, the ultimate bottom-feeder, and five stars to the world’s best airlines, all of which are based in Asia or the oil-rich Middle East.

If you’re going to Asia, try flying Cathay Pacific or Japan’s ANA, two of the five-star airlines serving Canada. Air Canada is a safe enough bet as one of only four four-star North American airlines (the others being Porter, JetBlue and Virgin America). Other four-star airlines that partner with either Air Canada or WestJet include China Southern, Japan Air Lines, Korean Air, Air New Zealand, Air France, British Airways, KLM, Lufthansa, Swiss and Turkish Airlines.

2. Mind where you sit. A passably comfortable seat for someone of average height and waistline should be at least 17.5 inches wide, and offer a seat pitch of at least 31 inches, that being the distance from the back of your seat to the one in front of you. But more tightly packed seats previously found on short-haul feeder flights, 17 inches wide at a 30-inch pitch, have been making their way on to long-haul flights as airlines try to pack more passengers into each aircraft. Air Canada Rouge and Austrian Airlines are the worst offenders; though even the regular Air Canada has taken heat for outfitting some of its Boeing 777-300s with 458 seats, compared to just 299 seats on British Airways’ 777-300s.

Before booking, look for the aircraft’s seat pitch and width information on the airline’s web site or on SeatGuru.com. If the seat pitch is less than 31 inches, or the width is less than 17.5 inches, expect to feel squished.

3. Treat schedules as being somewhat like a politician’s promises. The typical flight, believe it or not, arrives at its destination almost exactly on time, or at least within five minutes of the scheduled time — and it’s the typical, or median, travel time that airlines normally use in setting their schedules to maximize aircraft and staff productivity.

While it’s in the airlines’ best interests to base their schedules on median travel times, it’s not in your interest as a traveler to do so, as this could force you to run for your connecting flight or wait in line to be rebooked if that flight leaves without you.

Canada’s two major airlines, Air Canada and WestJet, have been doing a fairly good job of keeping to schedule recently, but it’s still in your best interest to allow enough time in your schedule to handle a 30-minute delay (which will give you about 90 percent certainty) or a 45-minute delay if a missed connection would be more than just an inconvenience (which boosts the certainty level to about 95 percent on most airlines).

Delta and United, the two other big airlines serving Winnipeg, have been suffering some long delays on their worst 10 and five percent of flights recently. If flying Delta, a 30-minute delay allowance will still give you about 90 percent confidence of making a connection; but leave room for a delay of up to 70 minutes if making a connecting flight is absolutely critical.

United Airlines, the least-reliable major airline serving Winnipeg, should be given an even wider margin of error on its schedules. Based on its recent performance, allow for a 70-minute delay if you want 90 percent certainty of making a connecting flight; and for a 90-minute delay if you need 95 percent certainty.

Also beware of United’s tendency to sell unusually short connecting times between incoming international flights at its Chicago hub and onward flights to Canada, some connections being as short as 80 minutes. Your odds of making these connections are poor. All passengers arriving in the U.S., including those immediately continuing on to Canada, must go through full U.S. customs and immigration screening, which has been reported to take two to three hours on a busy day in Chicago due to U.S. government cost-cutting. After clearing U.S. border controls, you will need to re-check your bags, transfer from United’s international Terminal 5 to their domestic-and-Canada Terminal 2, go through security and make your way to the gate, which could easily add another hour or more. (And after all that fun, you’ll need to do the whole border clearance thing again two hours later here on return to Canada!)

Delta’s Minneapolis/St. Paul hub is said to work somewhat better; but even then a minimum connection time of three hours is recommended, not including delay allowances, if you arrive from outside of North America and connect onward to Canada.

If arriving in Canada from abroad at Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, budget at least 90 minutes for immigration, baggage delivery, customs, baggage re-check, security screening and boarding when coming back into the country, on top of the 30-to-45 minute delay buffers suggested above.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

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