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aug 14 2007

Sign up for those flight alerts

Nothing's a sure thing at an airport, except for exasperation. I recently discovered something new to be exasperated about. It turns out that the electronic boards in airport terminals, which announce flight arrivals and departures, can sometimes be misleading.

My friend and I were recently departing from the Louisville airport. Our flight was canceled. But we wouldn't have known this fact if we had relied on the terminal's electronic boards, which wrongly said our flight was departing on time.

Luckily, I found out about the flight cancellations via an alert to my cell phone. I had signed up for the alert when buying my ticket. And I had bought my ticket via Orbitz, after finding the fare through a Kayak search. As Orbitz promised, an alert by voice mail to my cell phone warned me that our flight was canceled.

It wasn't just Louisville's terminal electronic boards that were misleading during my trip. The electronic boards at New York's LaGuardia airport also displayed wrong information, this time affecting my second flight of the evening. This flight was an onward connection out of Charlotte. The plane--like many planes this summer--was grounded on the tarmac for a couple of hours. Yet when the passengers sitting near me called their families at LaGuardia to report the delays, the families told them that the airport arrivals board was saying the flight was "on-time"--a physical impossibility....

Had my fellow passengers called their family members earlier, they might have been able to warn them that the flight was delayed and spared them a three-hour wait at the airport to greet them.

So, again, be sure to sign up for those flight alerts to your cell phone, which can be sent by text- or recorded-voice message.

If you buy tickets through Orbitz.com, they'll give you an option to sign up for these alerts.

Some, but not all, other airline websites also offer this option. United, American, Delta, Northwest, and Continental are some of the airlines that enable passengers to sign up to receive notifications at their websites.

Some websites, such as Orbitz, allow you to sign other people up to receive fare alerts to. In other words, you could add family members to the list of people receiving the alerts.

One catch, though: If you're departing for a red-eye morning departure, the alert may wake you at an inopportune time to merely report that your flight is on time. In such a case, you'll be annoyed. Orbitz allows you to block out particular times--such as early mornings--when you do not want to receive messages. I hope other travel websites will adopt the same feature.

In fact, I hope they go one better. Airlines and companies such as Orbitz should begin to offer text messages that contain connecting gate information for multiple-stop flights. Here's what I mean: Say you have a to connect to another plane at an airport to catch an onward flight. Most flight attendants fail to announce the relevant gate information. You're expected instead to "deplane" and then stand around an electronic board in a terminal looking for the relevant gate information, wasting precious minutes to meet tight connections. Why can't companies like Orbitz, and airline websites, send text messages with the relevant gate information? There must be a solution.

Related: Readers offer 7 tips for coping with delays and cancellations.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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