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Dealing With Flight Delays

They can unravel the calmest business traveler, so here are Miss Conduct's tips for keeping cool while stuck on the ground.
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Editor's note: Welcome to our new weekly column on business etiquette. If you have a pressing biz etiquette question for Miss Conduct, please send her an email.

If good manners demonstrate grace under pressure, an airport is the perfect place to test them.

And who is the most gracious business traveler Miss Conduct has ever met? Elizabeth, the exotic animal trainer (Miss Conduct is blessed with a wide acquaintance).

On any given day, her business could involve taking a lion cub to the set or a chimp back to its home after intensive pet psychology, but let's join her as she takes Fluffy the Gila monster -- a large and poisonous lizard -- to a herpetologist several time zones away.

(If you're having trouble imagining this scenario, just substitute whatever cold-blooded predator you've had to handle lately.)

Back when your regularly-scheduled flight was imminent, the lizard was checked into the pressurized hold along with the large dogs (though in a separate cage, naturally, lest Fluffy should fancy Labrador for lunch). Unfortunately, the flight delay means that the lizard's going to get hungry right before the next available long-haul takes off. Thank goodness Elizabeth has a few spare frozen mice in her carry-on cooler.

Now, most business travelers have honed their airport skills to such a fine point that they hit the gate at the last minute before boarding. Over the past few years, heightened security concerns have stretched the "last minute" considerably, but still business travelers are a breed that prefers split-second timing to waiting around (or so Miss Conduct has read).

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What's ironic is that business travelers are also the most easily inconvenienced by airport delays, so we really ought to give more allowance for delays when we book our trips: The difference of an hour or two can mean missing a meeting. Even a short delay can turn a productive trip into a complete waste.

And the difference of an hour or two for an exotic animal trainer with a sick lizard can be life and death -- and there's no surer way out of a job than to have your product croak under your care.

Therefore, Elizabeth always travels prepared -- and polite. The stakes with her slippery predator are high, so she does all the smart things at the airport that the rest of us usually can't be bothered to. But no matter what your business, this list is essential.

  • Be prepared. Check in ahead of time and double-check for delays en route to the airport. Be aware of later airline schedules to your destination so that you can react knowledgeably in case of trouble.
  • Make it personal. Thank the airline representative, by name, who tells you about the delay. The impulse is to make their next few minutes as miserable as your last few. But if instead you consider what they're going through -- a day full of talking to angry people -- and you let them know that they're not alone in their discomfort, you'll at least get a smile, and perhaps even some extra help solving whatever problems the delays are going to create back at your office.If you get to know the airline employees by name, there is more chance they will identify with you. Not only is it much easier to get information from someone you know, but it's also easier to get information out of their colleagues. Telling Trish the baggage manager that Phil over at the check-in desk sent you and says she's the czarina of luggage might encourage Trish to showcase her skills. If anyone can locate and placate a predator in time for the next flight out, she can.
  • Keep it down. It seems obvious, but in the throes of your two day-long delay, it's a bad idea to yell at the airline employees. After all, the employees you can see are never the ones responsible for -- or even able to fix -- the delay, but they are the ones who can give you upgrades and meal vouchers.Also, imagine that your boss is with you at all times, and act accordingly. Even if he or she is not present, you're representing your company. Any embarrassing outbursts may be noted by employees or fellow passengers, thanks to a company logo on your shirt or luggage.
  • Use your time wisely. Speaking of your fellow passengers, you never know who's related to your next big client. Just because the diabetic grandma sprawled in the next seat is clad in sweatpants, discount her at your peril. You have time to spare, so make some small talk -- it won't kill you, and if she's not in a position to hire your company, her daughter might be.Or just brainstorm for work. Since the phone isn't ringing, you have time to really think about strategy and problem-solving in a way that's often impossible at the office.
  • Take care of yourself. The care and feeding of a business traveler may not seem as critical as that of whatever cold-blooded killer you're traveling with. But if you're overtired or hungry, you might forget to thank Trish or Phil and the delay will seem that much worse.You also want to get into a better mood so that when you arrive and meet your big client, you'll have a smile, not a grimace on your face. Read, listen to music, do something that relaxes you. And make sure to stretch your legs and make use of those generously sized airport bathrooms -- once you finally get off the ground, you won't have much chance to.

In sum, taming an airport delay is a lot like taming a wild animal, which is why exotic animal trainers are so darned good at it. They know that with patience, repetition and tasty treats -- aka positive reinforcement -- they will get where they want to go, and bring a prize specimen home as a trophy.

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AskMissConduct.com. Her amanuensis, Lisa Moricoli Latham, is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, and has contibuted to The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Salon.com.