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Flying tips for cranky passengers

  • Story Highlights
  • The rate of airline consumer complaints was up 60 percent last year
  • Experts advise checking a flight's on-time performance before booking
  • Have your airline's number on hand in case of delays, cancellations
  • Be aware of any compensation or accommodation you may be entitled to
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By Marnie Hunter
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(CNN) -- Disgruntled airline passengers are nothing new, and the latest snapshot of the U.S. airline industry indicates plenty of cause for frustration.

"Overall operational performance and quality declined once again to the lowest level that it's ever been," said Brent Bowen, a professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Aviation Institute and co-author of the Airline Quality Rating report, released this week.

According to the report, the rate of consumer complaints was up 60 percent last year. Of those complaints, 37 percent involved delays, cancellations and other scheduling deviations. Baggage handling -- addressed in 20 percent of complaints -- was the second most complained about issue. Eleven percent of complaints involved customer service issues.

"Consumer expectations have never been lower and airlines manage to underperform them nevertheless. That's been a consistent theme whether you talk about it this year, last year or 10 years ago," said airline industry consultant Robert Mann, who was not involved with the report.

With complaints on the rise and industry performance on the decline, what can passengers do to up their chances of a smooth journey? CNN asked industry experts for air travel strategies.

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Do your research

When Mann is going to pick someone up at the airport, he looks at and to find out about the flight's historical performance in the most recent period. Travelers booking flights would be wise to consider this data when choosing a flight.

"If it's a chronic late-departure situation, well, it's never going to be on time," Mann said.

Data about flight delays and cancellations also can be found on the Bureau of Transportation Statistics site.

Try to avoid the airport's most congested times, suggests Paul Hudson, executive director of the Aviation Consumer Action Project, a nonprofit organization that acts as a voice for airline passengers. Overscheduling is a major cause of delays at "choke-point" airports in cities including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Atlanta.

"You should look at when the rush-hour times are at the particular airports that you're dealing with. In general, the midday is the least crowded, and late at night," Hudson said.

If you have to catch a connecting flight, try to get a connection in an airport that tends to be less crowded, suggests Brett Snyder, a former airline industry employee and author of a blog called Cranky Flier. Smaller hubs such as Cincinnati, Ohio; Memphis, Tennessee; and Salt Lake City, Utah, often are less prone to delays, Snyder said.

Prepare for the worst

Fly in the morning, especially during the summer, to avoid getting caught in a series of weather-related delays, Snyder advises.

Flying early in the day also increases your chances of getting on another flight in the event of cascading delays or cancellations.

Put the airlines' numbers on speed dial, so that you can immediately look for alternatives if your flight is canceled or delayed. Also keep your hotel's local number on hand, as well as your travel agent's number, if you're using one, Mann suggests.

Having a list of flight alternatives also helps in the event of a stampede of frustrated passengers toward the gate agent, Snyder said.

Pack light

Mishandled baggage rates were up in 2007, according to the Airline Quality Rating report, and the best way to handle the risk of losing your bag is to carry on only, the experts say.

"If you don't check them, they can't mishandle them," Mann said. "As a former employee, I would never [check bags] unless I absolutely positively had to."

Snyder agrees. "If you can fit everything into a carry-on, absolutely do that."

Make sure to follow Transportation Security Administration regulations and pack all liquids in 3-ounce containers or smaller in one, one-quart zip-top bag.

Don't pack valuables in your bag if you do need to check it. Airlines have limits and exclusions on what is awarded to the passenger if the bag is mishandled or lost.

Be familiar with your rights

Read your carrier's contract of carriage, so that you know what to expect in the event of delays or cancellations. For U.S. domestic flights, passengers are not entitled to much in the way of compensation or accommodation.

If the flight is excessively delayed, overnight stays and meals may be covered by the airline if the cause is within the control of the airline -- such as maintenance or lack of a crew, Hudson said. Weather doesn't fall into this category.

Passengers on international flights and flights to or from European Union countries fall under more generous compensation rules. Be sure to make yourself aware of those allowances before your trip.

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