PHOENIX As Roger and Pat Bate hustled to catch a plane home to Houston, they got the dreaded call that many will receive from their airline this year.
There was a problem with the crew, the plane, something the Continental employee was not sure. The Bates needed to find another way home.
"There were a lot of unhappy faces in line" at the ticket counter, Pat said. "If they told us to come back the next morning, we were not going to be easy to get along with."
It is a call that millions of passengers received as airlines canceled nearly 65,000 flights so far this year. That is almost as many as all of 2007, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, and travelers should be ready to be even more flexible as airlines carve chunks out of their schedules later this year.
UAL Corp.'s United Airlines said it will cut as many as 14 percent of available seats on domestic flights by the end of the year. American Airlines will slash as much as 12 percent after the peak summer travel season, and Continental Airlines Inc. will reduce about 11 percent in seating capacity starting in September.
Delta Air Lines Inc., Northwest Airlines Corp. and US Airways Group Inc. said they are planning similar cuts of 13 percent, 9.5 percent and 8 percent, respectively, by the end of the year.
Airlines hope that by offering fewer travel options they can boost fares and better deal with soaring fuel costs that have over-whelmed the industry. But airline observers say many passengers who bought their tickets months in advance are now going to have to scramble to fit new flights into their plans.
It is unfair, Minneapolis-based airline expert Terry Trippler said. Airlines "are the ones who've underpriced their product for the last two or three years," he said. "You cannot take people's money four and five and six months out, and then one month out say, 'it's changed."'
The capacity cuts also mean that later this year airlines may have less wiggle room to reposition passengers if there are unexpected cancellations.
Kate Hanni, executive director of the Coalition for Airline Passengers Rights, Health and Safety in Napa, Calif., said she's advertising for more volunteers to man a hotline this fall for stranded passengers.
"We're getting 400 calls a day already," Hanni said. Her hotline, 1-877-FLYERS-6, helps stranded travelers deal with the airlines.
United spokeswoman Robin Urbanski said her airline has a network of spare planes that it can mobilize if maintenance or other problems ground flights. It also staffs a "day of departure" desk that responds to unexpected changes in the schedule.
"We'll know a few hours, or even a day, if a storm is coming," Urbanski said. "They'll stop selling tickets on the flights to keep some seats open in case they need to reschedule."
In general, airlines try to accommodate bumped passengers with compatible schedules and will offer refunds if necessary.
"That's what happens in theory," Trippler said. "When something happens, a computer automatically reroutes the people." The airline says, "Take it or leave it, and that's it, or we'll give you your money back," he said.
"That doesn't work very well," he said, "when you bought a ticket for $298 and now the reroute doesn't work for you at all, and now it's going to cost you $598 to buy a ticket through another airline because you're now that much closer to departure time."
Despite the number of cancellations, consumer advocates say most travelers still don't realize their flight might not be waiting for them at the airport. With the summer travel season under way, people should keep a number of things in mind, they said.
• Be prepared to get bumped. Come to the airport early, bring your printed itinerary with you and keep your cell phone charged.
• Know your rights. Read the airline's "Contract of Carriage" policy. Copies are usually available online or at the carrier's ticket counter.
• Make sure you have an assigned seat. "If you don't have an assigned seat, you are the most likely candidate for not getting on the flight," Hanni said.
• Know alternate routes to your destination. "If your flight's canceled, it's a lot easier if you can walk up to the agent and say 'What about American through Dallas?' or 'How about Continental through Houston?' or whatever," Trippler said.
That's exactly what Roger and Pat Bate did when their flight was canceled recently.
When she got the cancellation notice, Pat pulled out her cell phone and started making calls. The two had been at a religious leadership training seminar in Louisville, Ky., and were aching to get home.
The Continental employee had told them to come back to the airport the next day, but Pat was having nothing of that. She had checked flight offerings with several other airlines by the time they got to the ticket counter.
"We were very much aware of the fact that getting obnoxious and angry is not going to make it any better," she said. "We said, let's give them the opportunity to serve us."
Together with the ticket agent, they found a flight on Delta to Cincinnati. Then they took Continental to Houston. The Bates got home more than six hours later than they had originally planned, and Pat's bags didn't make it until two days later.
"They mis-tagged my wife's bag, and it went to San Francisco," Roger said. "It was pretty chaotic."
The two laugh about it now. They will be back at the Houston airport in September for a trip to Europe, and Pat said she will not be so surprised this time if she gets bumped.
"I have to admit, in our much younger days, we were very full of ourselves, and if they didn't jump high enough or move fast enough, we would have been all over them," she said.
"But looking back, I realize it wouldn't have gotten us out of there any faster."