Driver Knowledge Tests

What should you do if you break down on the way to the airport?

You’re all excited for your holiday or you’re revved up for your business trip but fate intervenes and you are left on the side of the road with your car unresponsive and the clock ticking until final boarding call. All is not lost, as long as you don’t panic. These strategies will give you the best chance of reaching your flight on time.

  1. Is your car actually completely dead or will it limp to the airport? For example, if it’s overheating, you might be able to cool it down if you can get a water supply. Waiting for the engine to cool down will take around 30 minutes, which is often the time it would take to organise some other mode of transport or wait for a breakdown service. If it’s a flat tyre, you can get the luggage out of the boot and have it changed within 15 minutes.
  2. If you can make it to the airport but the car is seriously struggling, you’ll have time to organise a tow truck to come and take it away, or a friend to help out once you’ve checked your luggage in. Or you could leave the car in the airport car park and deal with it when you get back. If you’re leaving your car for a tow truck or a friend, be sure to leave the parking ticket in it and some way for them to get the key (if relevant), too, so that they can remove it from the car park.
  3. What was the last thing you did before the car stopped? For example, if you turned on your high-beam headlights and then it had problems, it might be something simple like a fuse. Search on Google for obvious causes.
  4. If it does seem terminal, get the car over to the left-hand side of the road and as far out of danger as possible. Don’t pull into long grass which could hide boulders or culverts. Don’t pull onto a soft verge which could give way. Do you have enough fuel? I.e. has it stopped because you’ve run out of fuel? If so, are you close enough to a petrol station to get some at short notice? If it’s not a fuel issue, let it settle for a minute then try restarting it. Some faults are transient – they happen because one of the car’s computers gets some kind of input it doesn’t like and it shuts some systems down to protect the engine. Turning it off and on again can reset the computer.
  5. How urgent is this issue? Check the departures page of the airport you are travelling to and hope that the flight has been delayed. For example, this page is for Sydney airport’s international departures. The longer it has been delayed, the more options you have. At a minimum, you should allow for being delayed by 30 minutes as this is a typical response time for a taxi or for a breakdown service.
  6. Assess the scenario. If the flight is on time then you have three options – repair, abandon or reschedule – and they depend on the urgency and importance of catching your flight, the number of passengers (e.g. travelling with small children will be much more challenging), how far you are from the airport, whether it’s broken down in a dangerous neighbourhood or on a road in the middle of nowhere, whether you have insurance cover and whose car you are in (e.g. with a rental vehicle you might simply be able to call them to come and help you).
  7. Option 1 – Repair the car: if you belong to a breakdown service and you think the car can be fixed, you might wait for them to show up. It’s important you ask how long they expect the technician to be and that you bear in mind that the technician won’t be carrying anything other than very generic spare parts. Your breakdown service may organise a tow truck for you. If you choose the next option (abandon) then check whether they will organise a tow truck in your absence.
  8. Option 2 – Abandon the car: if the car is parked in a safe place you could call a taxi, ride-sharing service or a friend and have them pick you up and take you the remainder of the way. It’s less reliable to rely on buses, hitchhiking or walking.
  9. Option 3 – Reschedule your travel: If you have insurance for this type of thing you could simply reschedule to a later flight. Some flights repeat very frequently during the day and you might simply be able to catch one that is 1-2 hours later. Obviously, this is going to be much more difficult if you are flying on holiday a long way and you are relying on a connecting flight. Call your insurance company and see what they will do.
  10. If you’ve chosen to repair or abandon your car, call the help desk for the airline you are flying with as they may be able to help either with express check-in or some other means of getting you through the queues more quickly. It’s unlikely the flight will wait for you, but the ground staff will usually try to be helpful in these kinds of emergencies.
  11. If you have no insurance and it’s unlikely that you’ll get there on time, your next priority will be to see if you can get on the next convenient flight. It’s likely to cost a lot – short-notice flights are very expensive.

While airlines might advise you to be at the gate two hours prior to departure you can see how this buffer can be eaten up very quickly. Having a little extra time can vastly expand your options and limit your risk.

Darren is an expert on driving and transport, and is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists

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