Flight Delays & Cancellations? What to Do

written by Julie Cohn

With nearly 1 billion people traveling on 9,500 domestic United States flights each year, airline delays and cancellations are becoming a common occurrence. Packed planes, fewer flight options, higher fares, and less flexibility make air travel frustrating enough, so flight delays & cancellations make travel even more difficult.  For the passengers caught in these circumstances,  they are more than a minor inconvenience; they are a disruption of business and personal time, missed opportunities, and in some cases, an added financial burden.  What is a passenger supposed to do when faced with flight delays & cancellations?  Do passengers have any rights when they travel?   Here are a few tips on what to do, how to minimize flight disruptions, and what rights you may have as an air passenger.

Understanding Flight Delays & Cancellations

Passenger A has an early morning flight from New Orleans to Detroit, but upon arriving at the airport, she discovers her flight is cancelled due to weather, causing her to miss her flight home.

Passenger B is a dad traveling with three kids on an evening flight from Orlando to Seattle, with a connection in Atlanta.  When he arrives in Atlanta, he finds his flight to Seattle is delayed due to mechanical problems.  Three hours later, the airline cancels his delayed flight because the crew “times out”, leaving Passenger B and his family stranded in Atlanta overnight.  What is the difference between Passenger A and Passenger B from an airline perspective, and how do they get their situation resolved?

Unforeseen Circumstances

Passenger A’s flight was cancelled due to weather, which is considered an “Act of God” or unforeseen circumstance.  If a flight is delayed because of weather conditions, most US airlines will re-book travelers on the next available flight, but are only required to re-book on their own flights, so travelers are at the mercy of airline availability and schedule.  If the airline has several flights a day, passengers will have an easier time getting to their destination.  Many of the low cost carriers only have one flight each day or sometimes every other day, however, so delays on those carriers will make it much more difficult for a passenger to get to their final destination.  In Passenger A’s case, she had a ticket from a low cost carrier with flights every other day, so she was stranded in New Orleans for two nights, with additional out of pocket expenses for hotel and meals. That low cost ticket she purchased turned out not be the bargain she expected, costing her time and money.

Most major carriers do a good job of accommodating passengers on cancelled unforeseen flights, even putting passengers on another airline if possible, but they are not required to do so, so do not expect it.  Hundreds of other people are also re-booking flights, so the airline may not be able to get you out for a day or two, even on their own flights.  It is also at the airlines discretion to put travelers in a hotel and/or provide meals for unforeseen cancelled flights, and most will not do so.  Finally, if your flight is cancelled and the airline cannot accommodate you in a timely manner, many airlines will refund your ticket, but be aware that if you’ve already used half of your ticket, you will only receive a refund on the unused portion of the ticket.  If you re-book flights on another airline on your own, you willl likely pay full fare, so  it is usually better to let the original airline re-book you so you do not have additional airline fees.  Each airline has a different policy regarding unforeseen events, so please refer to the individual terms and conditions (also known as conditions of carriage) of the airline you are traveling on.

Within Airline Control

Passenger B’s flight was delayed due to mechanical issues, then cancelled due to a flight crew “time out”.  Although the mechanical problem was technically unforeseen, the crew time out (flight crews are only allowed a certain number of hours of active flight duty) was considered within airline control.  Passengers bumped from flights due to oversold status, and certain reservation system problems are also considered within airline control.  In those situations, the airline is responsible for the delay or cancellation, and therefore has more of an obligation to take care of passengers. In the case of Passenger B, the airline that cancelled his flight provided him and his family with overnight accommodations at a local airport hotel (including shuttle service to the hotel), gave him meal vouchers for breakfast, and re-booked him on the next available flight, with very little additional expense to the passenger.

Oversold Flights – Rule 240

Most airlines are excellent in taking care of passengers right away when it comes to errors within airline control, while others may be more difficult to deal with because they assume travelers do not know or understand what they are entitled to. As with unforeseen circumstances, an airline’s policy to assist passengers comes down to their terms of service or contract of carriage.  In the 1970’s, there was a standard set in the airline industry called “Rule 240″  which dictated that for errors within airline control, specifically for oversold flights, airline carriers were required to have certain responsibilities to their passengers. Airline deregulation, the abundance of low-cost/no-frills carriers, and airline mergers minimized the value of Rule 240 within the airline industry, so today passengers do not have the same rights they used to, but most airlines still use a variation of Rule 240 in their contract of carriage. 

It is important for travelers to arm themselves with knowledge by understanding the individual policy of the airline and know what they are entitled to before they fly an airline.  This is especially true for the lower cost/non-frills airlines because their contracts of carriage are more restrictive and offer  less responsibility to a passenger.  In the case of low cost carriers. you truly do get what you pay for, which is great if you have flexibility to get to a destination and do not mind sleeping on an airport chair for an extra day or two, but if your time is important, you may wind up spending more than you bargained for.

In certain within airline control situations, such as crew time out or a passenger being bumped for an oversold flight, airlines are required to re-book flights and or reimburse/compensate passengers in a timely manner, even on connecting flights and certain International code share flights.  As an example, here is United Airlines rule on delays or cancelled flights (called Rule 24 in their contract of carriage).

United Airlines Contract of Carriage – Rule 24

In the case of an oversold flight (also called denied boarding) United is very clear about their re-book and reimbursement policy in Rule 25, including that they must ask for volunteers first, cannot deny boarding to disabled passengers or unaccompanied minors without determining there are no other options, and must re-book a passenger on the next available flight, usually within one hour of original departure, at no additional cost to the passenger.  In addition, passengers denied boarding (bumped from a flight) are eligible for compensation up to 200% the value of their ticket on US flights arriving between two (2) hours of the original flight, and up to 400% the value of a ticket for flights waiting 3-4 hours or longer from the original flight. There is many conditions and exceptions involved in these compensations, and each airlines has their own policy, so be sure to check the individual airline contract of carriage provisions for situations within airline control and denied boarding compensation.

Bottom Line: What to Do

US airlines are permitted to change or cancel flights at their discretion, with little obligation to the passenger.  When a passenger purchases a ticket from an airline, they enter into a contract with the carrier and have some rights within that contract, rights that are outlined in the airlines terms of service or contract of carriage.

  • Remain calm.  Every single passenger on your flight has the same issue and causing a scene will help no one.
  • Be kind and respectful to the gate agent, kindness goes a long way.
  • As soon as your flight is cancelled, call the airline or get to the gate if you are at the airport.
  • Understand the circumstances for the flight delay or cancellation so you what the airline can/will do for you.
  • Knowledge is power, so know before you go.  Understand the airline’s policy for reimbursement and/or re-booking of flights, and politely ask that they assist you within the provisions of their company contract of carrier with passengers.
  • If your flight is delayed or cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances, you are limited in what the airline is obligated to do for you.  Be prepared to pay for your own lodging and meals. however.
  • If the flight error is due to circumstances within airline control, such as mechanical problem, computer error, or overbooking of flight, and gate agent says they can do nothing to help you, politely invoke Rule 240 or the specific rule within the airlines own contract of carrier policies.  Ask that they put you on the next available flight, regardless if it is their airline.
  • If the flight is cancelled due to circumstances within airline control, ask for lodging, airport transportation, and a meal voucher.  You may not get a choice of hotel, but you will have place to rest for the night. If you prefer another hotel, ask if they can reimburse you for a certain amount toward the other hotel.
  • If you are bumped from an oversold flight, the airline has an added responsibility to get you to your destination in a timely manner and reimburse you for your inconvenience.
  • If you have flexibility in travel time and the airline asks for volunteers to move to another flight, do it, but wait until they increase the amount of reimbursement.  They will start off small and if they get no volunteers, they will usually increase the amount the bumped passenger receives.

So…now that you know all this, what can you do to minimize flight disruptions?

Tips to Minimize/Deal With Flight Disruptions

  • Avoid connecting flights, especially during the holidays and winter months when more delays occur. It may save you $50 to have a connecting flight, but if you are stranded somewhere overnight, you will lose that $50 very quickly on hotel expenses and meals.  Fly non-stop whenever you can.
  • Avoid lower cost/restrictive flights if you are traveling for business or need to be at a destination in a limited time frame.  Flights with fewer restrictions will be more easier to re-book.
  • Sign up for and use frequent flier accounts when traveling.  In addition to accumulating miles for free travel, you will develop “status” with the airline, and airlines always treat “status” customers with extra care.
  • If you are traveling for business or need to be at an event (wedding, graduation, etc.), travel a day or two ahead of time so you can arrive on time, even if there are delays.
  • Weather delays can happen at any time, so be aware of weather conditions for your departure, arrivals, and along the flight route to anticipate delays.
  • The busiest travel days are Monday and Friday, so avoid traveling those days if possible.  The least busy day is Saturday.
  • The worst airports for weather delays are San Francisco, Newark, and Chicago O’Hare.
  • There are less delays earlier in the day.  The later you travel, the more chance of delay.  The last flight of the day has the highest chance of getting cancelled.
  • Download FlightView for up-to-date flight information and to keep track of flight delays.  FlightView has faster,more accurate information than even many of the airline apps.  Case in point:  When I picked up my son from the airport over Thanksgiving break, FlightView alerted me of his flight delay a full ten minutes before the airline updated its system.
  • Download airline apps to your mobile phone and/or put airline customer service numbers in your contacts list before you leave home so you are not scrambling for the phone number if you need to re-book your own flight.
  • If your first flight is delayed and you have a connecting flight, talk to the gate agent about flight alternatives before your next departure.  Have a game plan ready in case you miss your connecting flight. Have alternate flight numbers handy in case you need to re-book a flights by phone.
  • Even if you use mobile phone apps for boarding passes, keep a paper copy of your boarding pass in your carry-on bag, especially if you have connecting flights.  Paper boarding passes usually provide more information than a digital boarding pass, such as confirmation number and frequent flier number.  A paper boarding pass will also come in handy when working with the gate agent, so they can pull up your information more quickly.
  • Be kind to the gate agents.  You know that old saying “You catch more flies with honey…”  This is especially true with gate agents.  They are there to help passengers, but when there is a plane full of frustrated passengers all looking for quick answers, nerves can get frayed.  The gate agents are likely not the cause of your flight problems, so do not take your frustrations out on them.  They work long hours for very little thanks, deal with difficult passengers every day, and have a stressful job. Be calm, respectful, and flexible when dealing with the gate agents.  A little kindness goes a long way.
  • Download your favorite hotel app so if you are stranded at an airport overnight and the airline will not provide lodging, you will be able to quickly book a room.
  • If your flight is delayed or cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances, respectfully let the gate agent why you need to get to your destination quickly and ask if they are able to help, but do not expect that they are required to move you to another airline, or pay for overnight lodging, unless it is clearly outlined in their contract of carriage that they must.  If they can help, they will make every effort to do so, but many times they just cannot do anything more.
  • If you are bumped from a flight due to oversold status, expect to be re-booked on an alternate flight within one hour or receive compensation from 200% to 400% the value of your remaining ticket, depending on the number of hours you have to wait for an alternate flight.
  • If your flight is delayed or cancelled within airline control, gently invoke Rule 240 when talking to the gate agent about other flight options.  Even if that carrier does not a Rule 240, they will likely know what you are referring to and whether it applies to your situation.  Do not use it as a end-all/be-all solution and do not abuse its use for frivolous requests.

US Airline Contract of Carriage Guide

Note:  This guide covers domestic US flights only.  International airline rules and responsibilities are different.

Flight Delays & Cancellations

 

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